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Statements on Stage

Arts & Culture | March 5, 2018

One could say that the Tufts Drama Department is blossoming this spring semester. Student groups and the drama department combined are offering an expansive lineup of shows over the next months, from the recent Tony-award winning play Red to a remastered Shakespearian comedy. But the extensive range of shows is not the only thing to notice. “I think at my time at Tufts, there’s been a very concerted effort to prioritize stories written by or about POC…people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups,” said senior Kristin Reeves. Her sentiment is reflected in many of the featured productions—shows like Fires in the Mirror and Dutchman consider the issues of racism in America, while classics like Fefu and Her Friends provide feminist commentaries. Critical plays like these challenge viewers to question their realities and, as Tufts Visiting Artist and Director Bridget O’Leary puts it, “sit in discomfort and be in dialogue with the work.”

Drama Department Chair Heather Nathans is currently teaching a course called “Race, Gender and Ethnicity on the American Stage.” She explained that the class analyzes various texts with “important opportunities to examine stereotypes as the product of a series of choices, asking how those choices get re-made, re-circulated, or subverted by traditionally marginalized communities as an act of resistance.” The syllabus includes many monumental plays and musicals like Hamilton, Indecent, An Octoroon, and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, that interact with topics such as race, queerness, and indigeneity. Nathans believes that one of the most powerful aspects of theater, which is examined through this course, is its ability to draw audiences together and foster a sense of community. “It’s not necessarily a community that has to be in total agreement with each other, but it’s a group of individuals who join together in the space of a performance to explore an idea.  That’s an incredibly powerful forum for bringing forward complex questions about race, ethnicity, and identity,” she said.

O’Leary is enacting these principles in her direction of Fires in the Mirror. She recounted skimming through her bookshelves—full of various play scripts—and coming across this piece she had encountered years ago. “I remembered the play being so good, but wondered if it had become dated over the past 25 years,” O’Leary said. “I was floored to see how present it still feels.” Written by playwright Anna Deavere Smith in 1992, Fires in the Mirror weaves together a series of various monologues from the viewpoints of over 20 different characters involved in the Crown Heights riot of 1991. Already strained interactions between Black and Orthodox Jewish community members came to a fever pitch after two Guyanese children, Gavin and Angela Kato, were struck by a car in Chabad leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s motorcade. The children’s serious injuries, and Gavin Kato’s eventual death, spurred a series of violent events, mostly targeted at Jewish residents in the area.

O’Leary hopes that her iteration of this show will challenge viewers to examine personal biases and preconceived truths. She notes, “In the case of the Crown Heights riot, everyone had a different experience and version of what they thought was fact. Viewers will notice this and hopefully ask more questions in their own lives instead of just relying on impulses.” Both Nathans and O’Leary, in this sense, see theater as an organic art form that constantly asks audiences to consider information instead of passively ingesting it. “Theater, at its core in Greek society, was designed to bring together citizens. It engages people to create a shared experience, and as a theater artist, I have a civic responsibility to offer spaces where people can think and change their minds.” Nathans also points out that theater and activism are often intertwined, such as abolitionist movements being catalyzed by shows like The Escape, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Neighbor Jackwood. Compared to many other mediums, viewers must grapple with the issues at hand in a particular play or musical. This necessity to engage helps champion theater’s reputation as an activist tool.

Dutchman, a senior capstone show written by Amiri Baraka, centers on themes of discrimination, the bystander effect, and the concept of community. “The play is about a Black man, Clay, and a White woman named Lula,” explains director Kristin Reeves. Lula ends up stabbing Clay in a subway car full of people, with no one intervening. Reeves hopes that the audience, by watching this character being murdered without stopping the bloodshed, will realize their complicity in racial violence through the bystander effect. Senior James Williamson, who plays Clay, chose this text for his senior acting capstone because “Baraka’s words are intense and gut-wrenching, but most importantly, they ring true for many Black individuals. Clay’s tolerance of Lula’s aggression, his reluctance to match her, and his efforts to diffuse the frequent bouts of tension are tactics of survival.” Williamson attributes Dutchman’s ability to galvanize social change because of how authentically it discusses topics of violence and oppression. “Stories that unabashedly go about [displaying the evils of humanity] promote thought and can lead to change. That is why they will always exist and will always be effective, whether it be Dutchman or any future stories that seek to tell these narratives,” he noted.

Fefu and Her Friends hits close to home, focusing on a group of women living in early 20th century New England. Assistant Director Rosa Stern Pait explains that the characters are friends spending an afternoon at one of their homes, preparing for a charity presentation while also discussing their lives and thoughts on society. “I love this play because all the women are real,” said Stern Pait. “They speak naturally, act naturally, and slide between intense emotional truth and friendly antics as naturally as any group of friends does.” First-year Paige Walker, playing Emma, was also attracted to this play because of the manner in which it conveys the human condition. “All these characters are just saying aloud the thoughts we may not even know we’ve had, and I hope that allows people to engage in similar conversations after seeing the piece.”

Stern Pait notes how Fefu and Her Friends interacts with feelings of being trapped in the expectations of one’s gender identity. “Every character expresses this trappedness in a different way—leaning into what traps her, trying to understand what traps her, or trying to trap the thing that traps her,” she said. Audiences can witness the challenges and confines ascribed to certain genders by watching characters engaging in these dialogues. Walker adds that “Fundamentally, I think Fefu champions women by telling their stories through their eyes… I think that the fact that there isn’t a man in the show allows the characters, as well as us as a cast, to really talk about womanhood in a raw and uncensored way.”

Fires in The Mirror, Dutchman, and Fefu and Her Friends were all written by distinctive playwrights, utilizing diverse characters, and telling narratives that sometimes seem worlds apart. But, as these students and professors have explained, each show fiercely confronts unjust realities and invites audiences to critically examine themselves and society. “Theatre is living and breathing,” O’Leary reminds us. It is innately human and, as such, shows audiences how to become better citizens, activists, and individuals.