For a critic who sees the creation of art, in its broadest terms, as framing difficult questions that pull us out of our comfort zones, creative expression that is fearless in taking risks becomes the most meaningful to consider.
In Utah, we put a premium on civility, politeness and gentility that tacitly signals restraint – and not just among conservatives but also many others of different sociopolitical stripes.
It is a signature achievement for the Utah Enlightenment – and Plan-B, which has established a bona fide record for diversity and inclusion in the arts.
Plan-B Theatre’s latest premiere, … Of Color, a quartet of short plays by four Utah playwrights of color making their debuts, demolishes those restraints in a production that rightly shocks the senses, rattles and invigorates the mind and resonates in complex commemorations, crises and celebrations of culture, spiritualism and racially authentic language.
The evening opened with American Pride by Iris Salazar, set in a local radio station studio for the show America Home Pride Productions 101.1 Great Again! At the outset, Salazar’s play has all of the markings of a dark comedy that happens to be steeped in the most disturbing political realities of our current times. The current president, who is set to run for a third term, will be the guest on the program, along with Jane Jones, an upper-class, white Christian who is being honored as this month’s All-American Citizen. Jane’s ‘good deed’ was turning in a young Mexican mother erroneously suspected of drug trafficking at a taco stand. The set encapsulates the tone of this administration: a throne for the president and a detention cell door at the opposite end of the stage.
There are seemingly absurd and preposterous elements in some of the play’s opening lines, but then it becomes more evident just how real these elements have become. And, all of the characters are played by actors of color, which heightens the play’s shock value. Jane (played with precise realism by Yolanda Stange) is ebullient about meeting the president, even if it would mean being touched inappropriately by him: “I am a married woman … but if his Royal POTUS feels like he absolutely must I wouldn’t make a fuss. A man with his responsibilities has needs that not even a young foreign model wife can keep up with! I completely submit myself … if required, and my husband would understand.” She signs a non-disclosure agreement provided by DJ KC Masters (played by Carlos Noblez Posas who wisely overplays the classic DJ role). The Royal POTUS shows up in golfing attire and, unsurprisingly, is obsessed with his Twitter feed on his mobile phone (played with perfect matter-of-fact tone by Brien Keith). He is oblivious yet content. He can get away with anything.
But, it is the appearance of Alicia, the handcuffed Mexican woman (played by Jillian Joy), where the comedy stops. Joy’s heart-wrenching performance overwhelms the stage. She speaks her lines in Spanish and her pleas are ignored with the same cruel tone that we have seen far too often in the news and on social media. Jane imitates the lines we have heard whenever the president speaks on immigration: “If these animals are not seducing our women, they are raping them, selling drugs at taco stands or sending their whores into our homes disguised as housekeepers to seduce our white men!” Alicia’s pleas are agonizing: “Mrs., do you have children? Do you understand my pain? My children must think I’ve abandoned them. Please help me find my children?!” Meanwhile, the president ignores the drama, consumed by his pathological narcissism.
The play ends on a tragic note and the opening night audience hesitated, not knowing how to respond in its applause. Even as many people have criticized and have been horrified at what they have seen in the last two and a half years, they also try to assuage themselves by stating ‘this is not the America I know.’ However, it has been the America we’ve known at far too many points in our history. If we truly do not believe this is acceptable, then we must accept and act upon the responsibility for ensuring that this president and his political allies do not see a second term, come next year. Our complacency is our worst enemy. Salazar’s message is as potent as it should be.
THE FRAILEST THING
With The Frailest Thing, set in North Vietnam during the 1970s, Bijan Hosseini achieves a similar knockout emotional punch but uses instead a simmering intensity. It essentially is a solo piece with Nguyen (played by Bryan Kido), accompanied by Vietnamese voices by Brandan Ngo and a puppet provided by the nonprofit creative enterprise Puppets in The City. The puppet represents a prisoner of war being subjected to torture.
The contrast at the opening is a stunner. There still are reverberations from American Pride’s shocking conclusion and perhaps the audience anticipated emotional relief. Nguyen opens with a confession: “I’m not sure whether or not I know what any of this means … or if that’s a lie. But I need you to hear me. I want you to understand.” He is clad only in boxers, and sits down with tea, a couple of bowls (one for pistachios and the other for their shells), a book and a row of neatly folded NVA uniform fatigues and combat boots. He remains silent for a prolonged moment and when he speaks again, his tone is distant, passionless, strictly measured.
In counts of lines and words, The Frailest Thing is the shortest of the four works but Kido masterly paces his lines, as he vocalizes Hosseini’s incredible poetry on the alienation of humanity and the frailties of human tenderness and love. In an early scene, Nguyen sets the stakes: “But how can it, if all that matters is what you believe? It’s like shooting an arrow, and then drawing a bullseye around where it struck. No matter how impossibly unforeseeable a place you find yourself, once there you can easily look back and track the mechanism and processes by which you arrived. There’s no other possibility. The bullseye already exists where the arrow lands – and yet. And yet, and yet, and yet… We still chase shadows outside the garden, dreaming — other lives for every left turn instead of right; all the while knowing in the emptiness of our hearts that there was never anything but this.”
How casually we forget the human beings caught up in war, as we watch Nguyen don the uniform and later remove it, so that in the closing scene he is clad again only in his boxers. Nguyen and his family know the inexorable, awful legacy of war, we discover. Born with dreams, many young Vietnamese experienced such deep sadness in their struggles that deadened their most heartfelt yearnings and amplified their self-doubts. The war had become so hateful yet the combat worsened with unrelenting intensity. How could anyone with heart kill so many young people? In recent years, there have been many stories about American military veterans who came to regret their actions in Vietnam. Some have gone directly to the Vietnamese, less for the purpose of asking for their forgiveness but more so to redeem and reconcile themselves through acts of humanity.
Hosseini delivers a script where a deliberately paced thread of emotion strips away the stylized, sanitized depictions of war and its rectitude. And, as horrendous as the war was, Nguyen reminds us that despite this, in the midst of a sadness that penetrated the psyche so deeply, people still were committed to loving and taking care of each other. It is a phenomenal piece of organic poetry that in its elegiac understatement tells us there is no exaggeration in his story. Those who have been involved in war have understood that not only their bodies were permanently scarred but so were their hearts and souls. If we look at Iraq and Afghanistan today, we should understand Nguyen completely. There is no virtue in war, there are no justified killings and there are no distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence. Yet, we remain utterly clueless about war’s realities.
DRIVER’S LICENSE, PLEASE
With Driver’s License, Please, Olivia Custodio delivered the evening’s most audacious, ribald moments, riffing handily off the classically unpleasant experience of renting a car. Enter Michael, a cowboy redneck asshole (played with the right dose of unabashed crudeness by Posas) who shares details about his reckless driving record with Danielle (Erika Ovuoba in a spot-on understated performance), the rental agent. Michael, of course, is convinced that Danielle (or any woman) is after his cock and that any woman who would refuse is a lesbian or in the middle of her period. Of course, Michael has yet to realize that he will be subjected to justified karma for his abhorrent behavior, once Katherine (a great character switch for Joy) enters the scene. Michael’s recklessness, for example, is the reason why Katherine needs a rental car in the first place.
However, Danielle’s frustrations with men expand when her co-worker Scott (again, great character switch for Kido) appears. He has just been promoted with a higher wage to a position for which Danielle was qualified. And, apparently, the two had been in a relationship.
Custodio handles the comedic zeitgeist perfectly. When Katherine pulls a gun from her bag, she immediately apologizes: “I’m not normally this reactive. It has just been a fucking week.” Danielle empathizes with her, while Katherine says, “No, really. I feel badly. It’s inappropriate.” Naturally, Scott puts his foot in his mouth: “I just feel like this is a perfect example of how feminism has gotten out of control,” a line that drew some well-timed groans from a few audience members. Scott prefers to rely on the crutch of platitudinous therapy, courtesy of a workplace psychologist. However, Danielle knows better when she puts Scott into his deserved space of shame:
Therapy is just the Band-Aid on our bullet hole. You do not listen to me. You do not enhance my life. Our problems have no solution. You should have seen the look on my friends’ faces when I told them that I once slept in the guest room because you were literally crying because I bought crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy.
Custodio’s wit is uproariously sharp and the ending is definitely satisfying. The performance popped with great timing and physical comedy.
To close out the evening, Roar, by Darryl Stamp, shined in its theatrical architecture and excellent performances. Set in two different periods (1994 and 1985) in the Midwest, Stamp sets his lead in Jilly Jackson (played by Ovuoba), a young African American woman who is a stand-up comic working the club circuit. Her father, Gerald (played by Keith), is a former professional stand-up comic who has fallen on hard times and battles alcoholism. The third character is Daria (again, great character switch for Stange), Jilly’s mother, who is a pediatric nurse.
The play opens in darkness, as we hear voices of a tragic memory, which Jilly experienced when she was 12. When the lights come up, Jilly is about to perform at The Laugh Out Loud comedy club. Her nerves have given her the dry heaves but she nevertheless takes the stage. Jilly’s routine is a smart bit, thanks to Stamp’s experience in writing stand-up material. He was a two-time winner of Showtime’s Funniest Person in Kansas in the 1980s, and he competed against Ellen DeGeneres, who eventually was named Funniest Person in America.
His experience as a comedian serves well in a script that shows Jilly persevering and finding her own resolve, as she deals with the tensions and complications of the relationship with her father. Gerald sees himself as a mentor for Jilly’s stand-up career. Offering a bit she has been working on per her father’s request, Jilly acknowledges that she loves her father but recognizes that he earned “a graduate degree in bullshit.”
Roar accepts the imperfections of love but in the bluntest, most honest conditions. Ovuoba and Keith are especially good in a counterpoint passage, rich in metaphor, distinguishing fictional and realistic takes on Jilly’s childhood memories — a scene which also explains the play’s title. In a flashback scene, we see Daria’s sensitive resilience, as the loving mother soothes Jilly’s upset feelings about an insult from a classmate. Meanwhile, Gerald defends his calling as a comedian, explaining that he always intended to use it as a platform to speak on behalf of African Americans. Jilly cuts him short, reminding him both that her mother is gone and of his alcoholism. In another scene, Jilly’s comedic routine reveals more personal details than what she might have intended originally.
A fascinating aspect of Roar is Stamp’s focus on the art of stand-up comedy. In comparing expectations against virtually every other creative artist, the stand-up comedian is unique, as she writes and performs her own act. We often believe comedians have an on-stage persona that is interchangeable with their real-life personality. This is misperceived, in my opinion. Jilly understands better than her father how successful comedians can handle the contradictions between their true personality and on-stage persona. Jilly has found the strength to defy the constraints imposed on the experiences of her life and her relationships. Comedy is her way of expressing this, something that her father could not achieve in his career.
The production … Of Color succeeds magnificently because of Jerry Rapier’s wise choices as director. Playwright Julie Jensen, who led the workshop that culminated in the plays for this premiere, encouraged the playwrights to cast off every restraint. We need many more examples of fearlessness in the local arenas of creative production and expression.
The production crew includes La Beene (costumes), Cheryl Cluff (sound), Megan McCormick (lighting, assisted by Emma Eugenia Belnap), Cara Pomeroy (set, assisted by Harris Smith) and Arika Schockmel (props). Jennifer Freed is stage manager and Sam Allen has assisted Rapier in directing.
Performances are sold out but there is a waiting list for any last-minute openings for seats. The production runs through April 7 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
For tickets and other details, see the Plan-B Theatre website.