Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

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Photo by Tony Nelson

“This play should not be well behaved,” Alice Birch writes in the notes for her play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. One of the most powerful things about Birch’s play is the language and form and how it misbehaves – it violates the expectations for how a play looks on the page and how it’s written, how dialogue works and how a plot is structured. Frank Theatre is currently staging this gem at Gremlin Theatre’s new space in St Paul and I couldn’t have hoped for a better company to tackle this piece.

With a powerful ensemble of Charla Marie Bailey, Joy Dolo, Jane Froiland, Emily Grodzik, Grand Henderson, and Gabriel Murphy, this play certain misbehaves. This play grapples with the difficult and often contradictory ideas throughout the waves of feminism, from refusing to marry, to starvation as protest, to “my choice.” I would have love to have been a fly on the wall during rehearsal to see how lines were split among the actors, who was going to be in each scene, and how the lines interact with each other. For those of you have never seen the script, Birch breaks away from the conventions of typical playwriting and doesn’t often note what character is saying what line (in fact, only in one specific scene are certain characters given names).

What I love best is how this play deals with layers of feminism – pointing out how large the issue really is and how often we get pushed into dealing with smaller issues. It reminds me of an episode of the Savage Love podcast that Leslie Vincent initially told me about – guest performer Rachel Lark sings a song about freeing the nipple but decides that it’s too nuanced an issue after the election of 45. She instead sings a song repeating “women are people” because that’s where we are. Another podcast I listen to (called Nancy) remarked recently that sexism has changed – it’s become more sinister and harmful in a way. It’s somehow hard to point out the workings of the patriarchy when it’s learned to hide itself – or even when it’s so clearly blatant (looking at you, Harvey Weinstein and 45) that it surrounds itself in power so that it can’t be taken down.

This show also struggles with the ways in which women take each other down and perpetuate the patriarchy themselves, how they have been taught to harm each other in ideas of resistance, how “my choice” is a complicated idea, and that men too are affected by the patriarchy that confines the idea of what a body is supposed to look and act like. It’s not often that a show this refreshing and bold comes along and I’m so glad that Frank is doing it. It’s exactly what we need right now to give us perspective and the drive to keep resisting.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through October 22 at the new Gremlin space in St Paul. Ticket and show information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website. 

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Citizen

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

In 2014, Graywolf Press published Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A blend of poetry, lyric essays, social criticism, and images, this groundbreaking book focuses on race relations in America – especially microaggressions and repeated racist incidents. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve encountered. As I read it for my MFA program this semester, I was elated to see that Frank Theatre was performing an adaptation of the book. Having seen it both opening night and at a Sunday matinee with a talk-back, I’m still struck by it.

A story like this only grows more important as the days continue. If you’re mesmerized by the film Get Out and still are emotionally recovering from We Are Proud to Present in the Dowling Studio, then Citizen should be your next thing to watch. Using a collaborative ensemble featuring Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson, this performance splits Rankine’s narrator – who frequently uses the second tense to tell their accounts – into several voices encountering racism that often goes overlooked. Recounting illness cased by dealing with racism every day, a white colleague confusing one African American person for another, a neighbor who calls the cops because a friend who is staying next door is making a phone call from the driveway and he looks suspicious, Rankine’s book does not back away from showing the sheer multitudes of microaggressions and subtle racism that occur daily and the ensemble does a masterful job of portraying them. The poetry in the original work is profound and to hear it pour of the tongues of these incredible actors will wrench at your gut, overwhelm you emotionally, and haunt your mind.

If you haven’t read the book, you won’t have a problem following the story, but for those who have read Rankine’s work, the way that media is brought alive is particularly gut-wrenching. From footage of Serena William’s tennis matches to photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the subjects captured on the page are put in front of our eyes, making it impossible to ignore the argument being made.

Of course, reading a book is far different from watching a show and some of the intimacy of Rankine’s work is lost. But theater asks us to share an experience with our neighbors, making for an added level of complexity for how to negotiate space with a show like this. Theater audiences tend to be mostly white in Minnesota and, undoubtably, this is an important show for Minnesotans, especially white liberal Minnesotans, to see. But you can’t always gage where a theater audience is at or where a show registers for them. At the post-show talk-back on Sunday, which included Shannon Gibney and Peter Rachleff as panelists, I was struck by white audience members who were afraid of making microaggressions and announced their discomfort, drawing parallels from the show to reconstruction after the Civil War rather than present day, and pinpointing Trump as an exceptionally racist president, rather than a more vocal on whose precedent was set long ago. Hearing comments that seemed out of touch from what I saw staged concerns me, not that the show isn’t working and isn’t presenting its message clearly, but that audience members have more work to do than I thought. I’m going to step out of reviewer mode for a moment and talk as a community engagement and advocate. I believe that we should have conversations about theater, especially after shows like this. But it concerns me when certain things continually occur during talk-backs – a white male always speaks first; people of color are sharing real, recent instances where certain events are have happened while white people feel the need to discuss their discomfort or show that their only context for these events was in the past or in the South; and African-American panelists and audience members having to do all the work and all the teaching to make white audience members understand. Talk-back should be learning moments but, as it came up in this talk back, here and in our day to day lives, white allies need to do more to jump in, advocate, and explain. As the conversation became uncomfortably focused on white discomfort, I wondered what I, what we, as audience members, panelists, and human beings in general can do to be better allies? How can we help guide talk-backs to keep them from going in outrageous directions? What can we do to correct behavior or explain why a certain comment is given at the wrong time or in the wrong space – and not just in the theater in but in our everyday lives?

Needless to say, this show has given me a lot of food for thought. I cannot stress the importance of the show enough or the brilliance that is Rankine’s work. Read it, see it, and talk about it. And keep talking about it. And don’t stop talking or working or fighting racism in America.

Citizen is adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s book. It is directed by Wendy Knox and is playing at Intermedia Arts now through April 2nd. Tickets are available on Frank Theatre’s website.

For more on this production of Citizen, check out the live video I did with Kendra Plant from Artfully Engaging where I chat with Wendy Knox and Hope Cervantes about the production!

Good Person of Setzuan – Frank Theatre

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like Frank Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan. Part site-specific experience in the vacant space of the former Rainbow Foods on Lake Street, part found object set and installation project, it’s an incredible production that immerses the audience from the very moment they arrive.

Using Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Brecht’s work, this adaptation follows the arrival of three gods (Katherine Ferrand, Janis Hardy, and Ellen Apel) in the poverty-ridden town of Setzuan. The water-seller (Patrick Bailey) anticipates their arrival and meets them, promising to help them find a place to spend the night. However, each person he asks turns them away, causing the gods to wonder if there’s a single good person left in this town. Finally, the Water Seller comes to the residence of Shen Te (Emily Grodzik), a prostitute who agrees to allow the gods to stay with her. Proclaiming her a good person, the gods give her a gift of money to help her pay her rent. But due to the need of the people around her and Shen Te’s generous heart, she tries to help others in the poor town, leading to trouble and the feeling that she is being used. In order to cope and survive, Shen Te literally splits herself in half, creating an alter ego of her cousin, Shui Ta, the help negotiate and run the tobacco shop she has bought with the gods’ gift. When Shen Te realizes that marrying would help her financially, she plans to marry someone with money – but instead falls for the out of work pilot, Yang Sun (John Middleton). Deciding to love Sun no matter what the cost (both literally and figuratively), she chooses to marry him, even if he doesn’t love her. However, things don’t go the way Shen Te plans and she becomes Shui Ta again, opening a factory and changing Sun into a harsh, workaholic foreman.

Brecht is known for being dense, blunt, and focusing on the message and the medium of theater. He doesn’t write a piece that allows you to escape – he makes you constantly aware that you are watching a play and causes you to connect it to the world around you. Some might find this heavy-handed, but Frank’s production presents this with such power and grace that it doesn’t feel heavy or contrived but rather thoughtfully constructed.

A lot of this is due to the powerhouse cast. Aside from the talent mentioned above, there’s an incredible ensemble that performs an array of characters and constantly change and shift the set. Highlights include Kirby Bennett as Mrs. Shin, a former tenant of the space who looks to Shen Te for help and is the only person who knows her secret; Adam Varela as the barber Shu Fu, who falls in love with Shen Te and gives some wonderfully melodramatic monologues; and Kate Beahen and Joseph Miller as the Wife and Husband, troublemaking tobacco store owners sans a store who camp out in Shen Te’s shop and push her towards needing the alter ego of her cousin (who ultimately takes advantage of their tobacco supplies for Shui Ta’s own gain).

This is also a play with music, composed by Dan Dukich, combining dissonant Kurt Weill styles with more modern (almost 80s pop?) sounds, which lends itself wonderfully to mood and atmosphere already in place. In one powerful scene, we see Shen Te transform into Shui Ta, all while singing “Song of the Defenselessness of the Good and the Gods,”about how the good can not remain in a society like this and that the gods are no help. “The Song of Smoke” is also wonderfully eerie and full of some great solos.

Combining wonderful lighting design by Mike Wangen, various lush and tattered costumes by Kathy Kohl, a clever set by Joe Stanley, and fantastic props by Kellie Larson (who also designed the lobby display), there’s a really rich world that’s created inside the vacant store. And because it is an old grocery store, there’s remnants of its former usage everywhere – which further hits home the issues of the play. The loading dock, which has become the stage, provides the perfect sort of decaying mechanistic feel for the show. And, incredibly, it has wonderful acoustics.

Though this show is three hours long, it doesn’t feel longer or ponderous. Instead, it draws the audience in and raises important questions: how does capitalism make us act like different people from the ones we’d like to be? How does labor change who we are? Can we be good when everything is expensive and so much of our lives are about money? How can we change the world? As someone who’s worked in retail and customer service since college, I’m elated to see this production (especially right before election day) that considers economic issues (and if you take the light rail to the show as I did, you’ll find it impossible to overlook how relevant it is to issues of poverty in Minneapolis, given the number of people who have made the space under the overpass of Hiawatha home). If you want to dig in deeper to the play, check out the research guides available for purchase. Or, bring a friend, grab a drink afterwards, and dig into the deep issues of post-modern capitalism raised in this brilliant show.

Good Person of Setzuan is written by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tony Kushner, and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through November 20th at the former Rainbow Foods location on Lake Street. Show and ticket information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website.