We don’t go to the theater to see spectacular CGI special effects. We don’t go to get swept away by glorious Technicolor animation, 3-D stereoscopics or Dolby Surround sound. What we do go to see are stories about people, places and ideas. Stories that, while they may not be about us personally, reflect us, as human beings, back to us. We go to the theater to learn about ourselves.
Therefore, there is no more fitting place in which to discuss the recent crisis in America than the theater. No better place for us to examine and unpack what’s been going on, how we feel about it, what we’ve done about it and what should be done about it, than the safe dark space of a stage.
Landing Theatre believed this strongly when it set out to produce The Redemption Series. It started with a call among company members in the wake of the massacre at PULSE Night Club in Orlando, Florida. We need to address this, they thought. But not just that. There were a myriad of national issues, some violent and some social, that they felt compelled to respond to. Too many to cram into one show.
Instead they put out a national call for original short plays exploring the present situation and how we, together, can move forward from this time of crisis. The result was The Redemption Series — 12 plays of around ten minutes in length featuring writers from around the country, each with its own director and a cast of 20-plus actors sometimes doing double duty in two or more plays.
As the lights dim, it’s best to put away any notion of "too soon." The present is what was called for and it’s the present we get, raw wounds and all.
Four people sit at a table, each with a laptop, all tweeting furiously and competitively with one another. “Terrorist Attack in France” reads the headline projected on a screen behind them. It takes less than a second for them to snap into action. “Terrible news about France, thoughts and prayers,” mews one of the tweeters as she types furiously. The others, also calling out their tweets, respond with equal pat sentiments. Some call for gun control, some say there aren’t enough guns, others blame or sympathize with the French Muslim population — each one an indignant and righteous hollow bellow.
The headlines keep coming at rapid pace. Black Lives Matter protest, Cop shooting, School massacre – “What are the races?” they shout out, desperate to tweet but not yet knowing where to land. “You’re going too fast; I don’t have my template ready yet!” They try to retweet, like and reply to each other’s 140-character diatribes, but no one can keep up. “Just say what you’re supposed to say, stick to the phrases” screams out one tweeter in a panic.
Called Creatures of Habit (written by Blaise Miller and directed with verve by Sophia Watt), it is by far the best and most fully realized play in the series. Equal parts funny, scathing and cringe-worthy, this is a show that holds up a mirror to some of our worst online behavior and shames us into seeing. Tweeters Justin Gibbons, Faith Fossett, Estee Burks and Brandon Hobratschk could be any one of us. Probably have been us, if not on social media, then in direct conversation or thought as we levy ultimately empty sentiments instead of action in times of crisis.
Unfortunately, the rest of the shows in the series don’t achieve this kind of success. Despite their worthy and crucially important themes, the other short plays fail to elicit real emotion or foster meaningful discussion thanks to issues that span writing, direction and performance. One other play, however, does come close to working.
Two Broken Taillights (written by Elliot Kreloff and fluidly directed by Jonathan Gonzalez) imagines a scenario in which two white cops pull over a black couple for a broken taillight – but wait – there’s a switcheroo in place. About three minutes into the action, the actors switch costumes and place and now its two black cops pulling over a white couple for the same reason. And back and forth it goes. Both couples are hiding something in the car. One legally, one not. And anyone reading the news lately will immediately catch on to the ripped-from-the-headlines element of the story.
Yunina Barbour-Payne, Xzavian Hollins, Carli Mosier and Bill Giffen do splendid jobs with all the roles, and Gonzalez moves them through the switches and character changes with great success. But as intriguing as Kreloff’s premise is, and as upsetting as the outcome seems to be, there lingers a sense of uncertainty around what we're supposed to take away from the piece or how this moves us forward in any way.
In fact, that idea of moving forward communally from crises seems to be absent from all the plays, despite the original call for submissions. Instead, in some cases we get snapshots of present-day disturbing realities such as North Bend (written by Ariene Jaffe and directed by Lauren Hance), about how we are failing the mentally ill; Dolphins and Sharks (written by James Tyler and directed by Vicky Comesanas), which looks at our pitiful minimum wage and lack of job opportunities for people of color; and Stop Frisk (written by Rich Rubin and directed by Cheramie Hopper), about racial profiling and the police.
Or we get commentary/reflection on recent national violent tragedy. Summer Storm (written by Jaisey Bates and directed by Melanie Burke) is a spoken-word poem about the Orlando shooting and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, Dance Again (written by Emilio Rodriguez and directed by Stephen M. Miranda) is a choreopoem for the “brown boys” killed at Pulse Nightclub, and Dallas/Love the Bomb (written by Josh Inocéncio and directed by Stephen M. Miranda) introduces us to the sniper in Dallas after his cop-killing rampage.
The remaining four shows fall into categories of their own, but can be grouped together in their reliance not on tragic events or social breakdown, but rather on a feeling that things aren’t or won’t be right. Cram School Snow Day (written by Reina Hardy and directed by Rob Kimbro) imagines an America in which immigrant children are at risk of being gunned down, possibly by the authorities; Gym Class Heroes (written by Dillon Rouse and directed by Mara McGhee) asks whether you can ever really run away from the parts of the world you don’t like; Bull (written by Peter Snoad and directed by Clara Goodwin) comments on Wall Street’s power and our powerlessness; and The Betrothal (written by Germaine Shames and directed by Rebecca Bernstein) takes us to an imaginary scenario in Syria.
In the end, and with little or no forward trajectory in this problematic series, what are we left to think? What are we to feel? How does looking at raw wounds help us move forward as a community in a time of crisis? Perhaps for some, the mere looking is part of the healing. For others, though, it might just be a reminder of how bad things are, with no way out. I certainly hope that isn’t the story we are telling to ourselves.
I’d like to take a little side step here and not provide final thoughts on what we did see; I think that’s been discussed enough. Rather, I feel we need to talk about what we didn’t see in The Redemption Series. Namely, any stories specifically addressing crisis issues or commenting on violent events affecting women in America.
There are female roles in the 12 plays, to be sure, but not once was a story centered on the crises women alone face. Are rape culture, sexual harassment, victim blaming, slut shaming and the fight over who controls a woman’s body not big enough issues to be discussed in the company of these other national crises?
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A man shoots up Planned Parenthood; a Stanford male athlete gets a mere three months for brutally raping an unconscious woman, a television network is rocked by endemic sexual harassment. These are just some of the headlines that could have been fodder for a story.
It’s possible, I suppose, in the more than 200 submissions Landing Theatre received, that not one story concerning the national crises American women face was received. Or maybe the ones the theater received weren’t good enough, although considering some of the choices made for the series, that’s hard to imagine.
I have no idea what went on behind the scenes to result in this omission. Knowing the company as I do, I’m almost certain the omission wasn’t curatorially on purpose. But when it comes to theatrically exploring our present crisis situation in this country, I would argue that ignoring more than 50 percent of the population isn’t exactly a "coming together as a community" thing to do.
After all, if we can’t all be represented in the theater, where can we be?