The media-savvy students of MSD (some of whom met through their school's drama club) are not "faking it until they make it." Nor are they paid "crisis actors." What they're doing is taking bold action during a crisis in which supposedly responsible adults, crippled by corruption, incompetence, and fear, have failed them in their moment of need.
In a surprisingly brief period of time, students have huddled together to analyze, organize, vocalize, and dramatize a new political movement. In addition to launching a nationwide student organization entitled Never Again MSD (known by the hashtag #NeverAgain) conceived to fight for tighter gun control, they have focused the power of shame like a laser and are starting to produce impressive results through carefully targeted messaging (e.g. "Call AR-15s Marco Rubios because they are both easy to buy"). Contrary to what conservative pundits and NRA shills would have the public believe, this new movement is being created of the students, by the students, and for the students.
Not only have they begun planning a march on the nation's capital, the students have humiliated skanky NRA whores like Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch on national television. In a stunning act of old-school shunning, they have warned politicians and corporations used to comfortably sitting on their status quo that "You're either with us or against us." In less than two weeks these students have pulled off the equivalent of informing Americans that any business still aligned with the NRA has "cooties."
Within 10 days of the Valentine's Day massacre, the students inspired companies like First National Bank of Omaha, TrueCar, Symantec, North American Van Lines, Allied Van Lines, and Simplisafe -- along with hotel chains (Best Western, Wyndham Worldwide, Days Inn, Super 8, and Ramada), airlines (United, Delta), insurance companies (Chubb Limited, MetLife), and car rental agencies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Enterprise, and National) -- to sever their marketing ties with the National Rifle Association. As advice columnist Dan Savage so aptly noted:
"The students at Stoneman Douglas have called for a March on Washington on March 24 and, along with the new group NoNRAMoney.org, intend to make taking money from the NRA as politically toxic as accepting campaign contributions from NAMBLA. An unfair comparison? One group supports child rape, the other supports child sacrifice. Both oppose reasonable age limits. I’d say it’s a fair comparison. Also: one actually exists and wields tremendous political power. The other is powerless and these days only exists in the fevered imaginations of anti-gay social conservatives."
Oprah Winfrey's remarks about the importance of young people knowing how to shape and frame their message took on added meaning on February 18, when TheatreFIRST presented the world premiere of Between Us at the Live Oak Theatre. As part of the company's educational outreach program, artistic facilitator Jon Tracy recently tried an experiment with students from Berkeley High School. When he first approached the school's administration about getting students interested in writing their own monologues as an exercise in "finding their voices," he was expecting to get buy-in from about 6-10 students at most. Instead, 90 teenagers showed interest in the program. The results were more than Tracy could have hoped for (he was especially impressed by one student who exclaimed that he had never before thought of himself as a revolutionary).
As the audience waited for Between Us to begin, Tracy came onstage and told TheatreFIRST's supporters about his recent experience. He then invited five of the Berkeley High students (Leia Figueroa, Zoe Creane, and Kavi Moohkerjee at the matinee; Jasmine Miller and Makeda Tucker at the evening performance) to perform their brief monologues. As I listened to their surprisingly well-crafted pieces, I couldn't help wondering how powerful such a program might become if we could replace the "school to prison pipeline" with a "school to playwrighting pipeline."
Others have noted the strong link between the students in MSD's drama club and how easily their theatrical discipline helped transform them into highly-effective activists. I strongly recommend the following three articles:
- "Are You Surprised That the Young Leaders of the Never Again Movement are Theatre Kids? I’m Not" by Stephen Sachs.
- "The Spring Awakening of the Stoneman Douglas Theatre Kids" by Michael Schulman.
- "Last Fall, They Debated Gun Control in Class. Now, They Debate Lawmakers on TV" by Kyra Gurney.
With the accelerating churn rate among leadership positions currently taking place throughout the nation's theatre community, more and more people are watching to see if regional boards of directors and their search committees will seek out qualified women and people of color instead of merely reinforcing a pattern of filling such positions with white men. Created by Rebecca Novick, Lia Kozatch, and Evren Odcikin, a spreadsheet tracking American Theatre Leadership Change is hoping to track parity and accountability in job searches. The bottom line will also give insight into which new leaders have a compelling artistic vision. To quote a character from 1967's Tony Award winner for Best Musical (Hallelujah, Baby!) "Storm's a comin' baby. Pull in your sails!"
* * * * * * * * *It's easy to think of Between Us as an extremely downsized response to such legendary two-part productions as Angels in America, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and the upcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- Parts I and II. However, contrary to what those productions have with regard to cast size, special effects, and dramatic sweep, Between Us consists of seven 30-minute monologues (four in Part A, three in Part B) that form an American tapestry with tales of forgotten and ignored, yet powerfully motivated people who each have a compelling story to tell.
Just as a song cycle paints portraits of people and dramatic moments with music, each monologue in Between Us depicts a character's internal struggle. Each has been crafted by a different team of actors and directors focused on women and people of color whose stories are largely unknown to contemporary theatregoers. With a goal of making theatre "a place where social justice happens by breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world," Between Us allows these people to speak truth to power with a sense of irony, commitment, and justifiably righteous indignation as they introduce audiences to their unique places in history.
Part A begins with Brit Frazier's Laveau, which stars Dezi Soley giving a wry and impassioned performance as the infamous Creole woman who became known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Beautifully directed by Margo Hall, Soley's Laveau stresses that she is part of a long line of dark-skinned women named Marie as she explains how her knowledge of herbs and spices allows her to take a black man under threat of execution, put him into a coma-like trance and, after impressing white folks with his death-like appearance, have him secretly transported to safety in another state.
|Dezi Soley as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of|
New Orleans (Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)
Laveau's methodology was radically different from that of Harriet Tubman and her now-famous Underground Railroad. However, as noted on her Wikipedia page:
"Although some references to Marie Laveau in popular culture refer to her as a witch, she is properly described as a Voodoo queen. There is little that can be substantiated of Laveau's magical career, including whether or not she had a snake she named Zombi after an African god, whether the occult part of her magic mixed Roman Catholic saints with African spirits, or whether her divinations were supported by a network of informants she developed while working as a hairdresser in prominent white households and in a brothel she ran. She appeared to excel at obtaining inside information on her wealthy patrons by instilling fear in their servants whom she either paid or cured of mysterious ailments."One might think it would be hard to top Soley's performance, but Mike Sagun's portrayal of Filipino-American activist Larry Itliong takes the stage with a fierce determination to secure better working conditions for migrant farm workers. Written and directed by Jeffrey Lo, Seven Fingers presents the outspoken labor organizer as a charismatic character with a clear vision of the need for minority workers to support each other in their struggles if they are ever going to break the economic grip of white businessmen which has kept them mired in poverty.
|Mike Sagun appears as Filipino-American activist Larry Itliong|
in Seven Fingers (Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)
A militant figure in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965-1970, Itliong convinced Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to have Filipino-Americans and Mexican farm workers unite in their struggle for better wages. Sagun's bravura performance reveals the wily personality behind an easily forgotten struggle for West Coast farm workers.
* * * * * * * * *After a brief intermission, Jennie Brick takes the stage as Sharon, a recently-divorced woman who has left her hard-line conservative husband in Idaho and moved to Berkeley to start a new life. A quiet, almost submissive soul, she got used to listening to her husband's rants and then making her own decisions in the privacy of the voting booth. However, as someone who lived in one of the so-called flyover states, Sharon found that her champion knitting skills came in handy after hearing Donald Trump refer to Hillary Clinton as a "nasty woman."
|Jennie Brick appears as Sharon in Pussy Hat|
(Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)
Written by Katie May and tenderly directed by Phoebe Moyer, Pussy Hat depicts a shy woman who, for most of her life, has been told that whatever she has been doing, she's been doing it wrong. After years of being put down by her husband, she has decided to attend her first protest as part of the renewed fight for women's rights. But Sharon is confused, hungry for guidance, and doesn't know quite how to take the next step. Sitting in a beaten-up armchair, Jennie Brick gives a touching performance as a woman struggling to find her voice late in life so she can join the parade instead of merely sitting on the sidelines and quietly watching it pass her by.
Cleavon Smith's monologue, Just One Day, focuses on a young black woman struggling to get up the courage to take off from work for the first observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Directed by Elizabeth Carter, Sam Jackson's Esther is torn between conflicting loyalties.
- First and foremost is her desire to honor the memory of Dr. King, one of the few African American heroes her generation can look up to.
- Second is the strict warning from her employer that anyone who takes the day off to honor Dr. King can expect to be out of a job.
- Third are the black garment workers at her factory who have already caved to their employer out of fear and financial necessity.
- Fourth, and perhaps most formidable, is the impending arrival of her conservative mother, a woman who represents an older generation, is dressed for Sunday church, and may not be as supportive as Esther would like.
|Sam Jackson appears as Esther in Just One Day|
(Photo by: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)
The three short plays in Part B of Between Us need some work and will probably become a lot tighter during the show's run. Written and directed by Noelle Viñas, La Profesora: The Story of Nibia Sabalsagaray depicts a Uruguayan woman who is fighting her government to get justice for her sister, who was "disappeared" and presumably murdered. As Tachi attempts to lecture a class of American students, Virginia Blanco's connection with the audience is handicapped by a thick accent which, despite her obvious passion, frequently makes it difficult for her to be understood.
|La Profesora, the Story of Nibia Sabalsagaray|
stars Virginia Blanco as Tachi (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
Written by the Tracy brothers (James and Jon) and directed by Robert Parsons, The Racket gives Aaron Murphy a chance to shine as Smedley Darlington Butler, a major general in the United States Marine Corps who, when he died on June 21, 1940 following a military career that spanned 34 years, had the honor of being the most decorated man in the history of the Marine Corps. In 1933, Butler warned a congressional committee about a military coup being planned by wealthy businessmen to remove President Franklin D. Roosevelt from office and tilt the United States in the direction of fascism.
|Aaron Murphy appears as Major General Smedley Darlington Butler|
in The Racket (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
Butler's 1935 book entitled War Is A Racket lays the groundwork for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's stern warning about the rise of a military-industrial complex (the book's five chapters are entitled "War Is A Racket," "Who Makes the Profits?" "Who Pays the Bills?" "How to Smash This Racket!" and "To Hell With War!). With Parsons directing, Aaron Murphy delivers a high-voltage performance that raises the dramatic stakes to the level of an operatic mad scene. Would his tour-de-force performance be less frightening if Americans were not subject to the increasingly fascistic tendencies of the Trump administration? That may be hard for some to say, although I'm sure that plenty of people will have no trouble jumping to such conclusions.
* * * * * * * * *My favorite monologue from Program B was Turning the Page: The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Written by Jeanne Sakata and directed by Jeffrey Lo, this piece is dedicated to one of the women who led the redress movement for more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were shipped off to internment camps during World War II. Sakata's monologue explores the curious coincidence by which Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga discovered proof that military brass had attempted to destroy a document entitled "Final Report on Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast." Why? Published in 1943, the report clearly stated that, following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans posed no threat to the security of the United States.
Having grown up in the company of teachers and librarians, I found Sakata's gentle yet powerful monologue to be a bittersweet reminder that fake news has been around for a long, long time. Ironically, Turning the Page received its world premiere at the same time that a new museum exhibit about the Japanese Internment Camps debuted in Los Angeles (see Years After Controversial Sale, Artworks from Japanese Internment Camps Go on View). Heidi Kobara's restrained performance as Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga speaks volumes as she describes the shock of learning that her family (and so many other Japanese Americans) had been sent to concentration camps scattered around the United States simply because military personnel got swept up in a wave of xenophobia, acted rashly and without justification, and could not admit to its tragic error and underlying lack of faith in the people it was supposed to protect.
|Turning the Page: The Story of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga|
stars Heidi Kobara (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)
All seven monologues benefit immensely from Stephanie Anne Johnson's lighting, Kristoffer Barrera's sound design and the combined work of Barrera, Ben Euphrat, and Brendan West in curating a series of video collages. Nikki Anderson-Joy's costumes and Randy Wong Westbrooke's scenic elements add to the production's impact. Performances of Between Us continue at the Live Oak Theatre through March 10 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: