17 18 January â€“ March
american repertory theater | expanding the boundaries of theater
Staging the Conversation
The White Card HEAR WORD! Nigerian Stories on the World Stage
One Mother of a Musical
C A M B R I D G E , MA $1, 450,000
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Building Community One Home at a Time Supporting: The Mt. Auburn Hospital, US Fund for UNICEF, The Guidance Center, Huntington Theatre Company, and Cambridge Community Foundation
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Artistic Director’s Welcome
MANAGING EDITOR Ryan McKittrick EDITOR Robert Duffley ASSOCIATE EDITORS Rebecca Curtiss Grace Geller Joel Zayac CONTRIBUTORS Elizabeth Amos P. Carl Manuel R. Cawaling Yan Chen Rebecca Curran Kate Hamill Biodun Jeyifo Annabeth Lucas Deidre Lynch James Montaño Erin Murray Brenna Nicely Claudia Rankine Dmitry Troyanovsky
Welcome to the American Repertory Theater!
COPY EDITORS Nicole Banks David Libbey Stacey Schutzman
In our productions this spring, the arts and intellectual inquiry unite to explore
urgent issues of our time.
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Inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues as well as Ntozake Shange's for colored girls..., and performed by an ensemble of acclaimed Nigerian actresses, Hear
A.R.T. BOARDS BOARD OF TRUSTEES
BOARD OF ADVISORS
Word! Naija Woman Talk True was a sensation when it debuted in Lagos and toured
Andrew Ory, Chair
Ann Gund, Co-Chair Karen Mueller, Co-Chair
to theaters and marketplaces around Nigeria. The play’s journey to A.R.T. began when
*Emeriti FOUNDING DIRECTOR Robert Brustein
As of November 2017
our colleagues at Harvard’s Center for African Studies saw the piece in Lagos and
Paolo Abelli Frances Shtull Adams Robert Bowie, Jr. Amy Brakeman Philip Burling* Greg Carr Antonia Handler Chayes* Lucy Chung Lizabeth Cohen Lisa Coleman Kathleen Connor Rohit Deshpande Susan Edgman-Levitan Shanti Fry Erin Gilligan Jonathan Glazer Candy Kosow Gold Rachael Goldfarb Robert L. Green Barbara Wallace Grossman Peggy Hanratty Marcia Head James Higgins Horace H. Irvine II Brenda Jarrell Emma Torres Johnson Jerry Jordan Dean Huntington Lambert G. Barrie Landry Ursula Liff Timothy Patrick McCarthy Travis McCready Jim Nuzzo Irv Plotkin Martin Puchner Ellen Gordon Reeves Pat Romeo-Gilbert Linda U. Sanger Maggie Seelig Dina Selkoe John A. Shane Michael Shinagel Lisbeth Tarlow Sarasina Tuchen Susan Ware Michael Yogman Stephen H. Zinner, M.D.
The 2017/18 Season is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which receives support from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
contacted us immediately. A.R.T. audiences needed to see this play, they said, and meet its creator, the inimitable Ifeoma Fafunwa. With partners across the University, we presented a limited engagement at the Harvard Dance Center in Spring 2016. After witnessing the force, passion, and artistry united in this piece, I knew we had to bring it back for a full run. Now, with Ifeoma in residence at Harvard as a Radcliffe Fellow, the show returns to Cambridge. At a time when we in the US must turn our attention with new urgency to the work of combating sexual and gender violence, Hear Word! issues a rousing global call to rise up, stand together, and speak out. Our next production also seeks to mobilize the theater as a site of collective engagement. Co-produced with ArtsEmerson, The White Card is the newest work by MacArthur Fellow, scholar, and poet Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely). In Citizen, Rankine reflected on the profound pervasiveness of contemporary American racism. In heartbreakingly beautiful verse, her poetry traced the continuum of violence linking high-profile police murders with remarks made everywhere from the tennis court to the dinner table. It has been a great privilege to collaborate with Claudia on the creation of
conversation begun in Citizen: An American Lyric and earlier works. The White Card urges us to look beyond these instances of violence toward the too-often unnamed legacy that is their source. Can American society progress, the piece asks, if whiteness remains invisible? In the tradition of productions including In the Body of the World, Notes from the Field, and Trans Scripts, Part I: The Cover Photo: Claudia Rankine, © John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Diane Borger Laurie Burt Paul Buttenwieser RoAnn Costin Michael Feinstein Provost Alan M. Garber Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Catherine Gellert Rebecca Grafstein Lori Gross Ann Gund Sarah Hancock Jonathan Hulbert Steve Johnson Alan K. Jones Robin Kelsey Herman "Dutch" Leonard Serena Lese Dennis Masel Thomas B. McGrath Ward Mooney Bob Murchison Dan Nova Diane Paulus Mike Sheehan Fay Shutzer Sid Yog
Women, Act II discussions will follow each performance. Read on in this Guide for more information about each of these mainstage productions, as well as happenings at OBERON, the A.R.T. Institute, and beyond. Thank you for joining us in the theater this season, and in the conversations catalyzed by these productions.
DIANE PAULUS The Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director American Repertory Theater
americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 1
JANUARY 26 FEBRUARY 11, 2018 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER
Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa Featuring a cast of leading Nigerian actresses, Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True is inspired by multi-generational stories of inequality and transformation. Staged by director and writer Ifeoma Fafunwa, the show grapples with the issues affecting the lives of women across Nigeria, and the factors that limit their potential for independence, leadership, and meaningful contribution to society. Combining song and dance with intimate portraits of resilience and resistance, the show celebrates the women who have broken the culture of silence, challenged the status quo, and moved beyond barriers to achieve solutions. This critically-acclaimed production returns to the A.R.T. after its US premiere in a limited presentation in 2016. Audio Described Feb. 9, 7:30PM Feb. 11, 2PM Open Captioned Feb. 8, 7:30PM Feb. 11, 2PM Student Matinee Feb. 7, 11AM LARGE PRINT
OC Corporate Education Sponsor
COME CLOSE AND LISTEN An interview with Hear Word! Director Ifeoma Fafunwa Director Ifeoma Fafunwa shares stories from women across Nigeria in the play Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, a series of vignettes featuring leading actresses of the Nigerian stage and screen. Here, she reflects on her inspiration for, and the creative process of, the show. What led you to theater? I was always fascinated by theater but didn’t see it as a viable career. When I was growing up in Nigeria, young people were made to believe that if you were not studying to become a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, you were not serious about your life. So, I went into what I thought was an “acceptable” career art form: architecture. Years later, feeling really restless sitting in a design firm, I decided to try out different art forms on weekends. I painted, designed clothing, and also took acting classes, which I loved. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and joined a playhouse while still working by day in architectural firms. It was more fulfilling; however, I did feel limited by the plays I performed in. I wanted to tell stories about the world I grew up in, so I started writing stories about Nigerians.
Photo: Kelechi Amadi-Obi.
How did Hear Word! begin? Hear Word! grew from a combination of several experiences in my life, starting with my return to Nigeria after being in the US for about twenty years. I noticed the way women in Lagos treated one another: the cold stares, the lack of trust, the lack of collaboration. I wanted to understand why. Once I learned what Nigerian women were going through within such a strong patriarchy and then did the math on what we were losing as a nation because of it, I was eager to write a play about those topics. I began collecting true stories about women and the obstacles they faced daily. The issues reminded me of the first play I had seen in the US years earlier: Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. It was brilliant. Even though I wasn’t in theater at the time, I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to create something similar. Twenty years later and back in Nigeria, I shared these ideas about creating a play on gender issues with Joke Silva, a popular actress and friend. She immediately asked if I would consider directing The Vagina Monologues, which was to be produced in Lagos that year. I agreed. Those experiences and opportunities informed where I am now. How did for colored girls… influence you as a playwright? It was fascinating to see the power of the
monologues in the play: each woman represented a particular type of person, or personality. Shange assigned colors to each of the characters, and each color represented a sort of character type and life experience. I had never seen theater that melded dance, poetry, and drama in such an effective way. The stories were very intense, but the show was visually pretty in the choreography and the way the colors moved on stage. I also thought it was bold and brave for the writer to put her community out there like that, to expose its weaknesses within such a racially divided society. There’s often a reluctance to discuss bad things happening within the black community, because there’s already enough perceived negativity. So, with the US premiere of Hear Word! I was concerned that an American audience may feed into the same old negative rhetoric about Nigeria and, as such, be unable to connect with the universal story of gender inequality. It was important to make sure we shared the issues deeply and honestly, and yet also told a story of hope and empowerment. The play needed to speak to women about the potential that lay within them, within the global community of women: the potential to change the world. In Lagos, we premiered the show two weeks after the Chibok girls were abducted; it was powerful and necessary. Hear Word! is a story of hope even though we took the controversial stand of asking women where their responsibility lay in their own persecution. The show asks women where they are complacent and where they are enablers or gatekeepers to patriarchy. It demands that women play a part in the change and not wait for the government, aid organizations, or men to give us permission to excel, lead, and develop the world. How has the play been received in Nigeria? Hear Word! has had a great reception. I am still surprised that it continues to draw an audience after three years. It was designed to be entertaining and inclusive even though the messages are direct. It is not your typical "angst-filled," "painful" piece of gender-issues performance art, because I didn’t want any audience member to escape by thinking they weren’t a part of this story. The characters are also from different ages, walks of life, parts of the country, and socio-economic classes. Additionally, although the show opened in an affuent part of town, we started getting the idea to bring it to a larger audience, so we took it to universities. We put speakers in the back of a truck and headed to markets and bus stops. It was very well received. In fact, the crowds would often participate in some of the pieces by joining in singing songs and responding loudly to the
performance. At universities, there would actually be banter between male and female audience members. You know, you get a thousand students in a room, and it can be on fire. What does the phrase "hear word" mean? "Hear word" is Nigerian Pidgin for “listen and obey.” Nigerians use it as a warning or threat to women and children, or to people with less advantage. Men will say “My wife no wan hear word,” meaning “My wife does not listen” or "When I slap am e go hear word,” meaning "when I slap her, he/she will listen.” Police use it when they stop to frisk public transport conductors or drivers, and people who can afford to have domestic staff often use it with their staff. So, what I wanted to do was to flip the script, you know, to say, “Listen and learn from what women have to say, because if we continue with the way things are going in this country, we will surely never progress.” Why is it important to perform Hear Word! in Cambridge now? I believe that given what is going on in the world today, it’s almost like the entire world is spinning backwards in time. Gender inequality in America is back in the spotlight with sexual harassment, rape and the "culture of silence" on the front burners. Meanwhile, the US and some European governments are very busy alienating entire communities that have called America and Europe home. People are feeling threatened from all sides, and history tells us that the outcome of these conditions will not be good. Hear Word! can add its voice to the gender issues discussion; it can also contribute by offering insights into the lives of people from a very different culture or community. Although the play’s context is culturally quite diverse from mainstream America, the issues presented in the play are universal, and this allows for commonality between cultures. Common threads are shreds that are important for us to hold onto now. If you’re sitting in the dark, and there’s a light on somebody who’s telling you a true story, a real story, in a way that is intimate, you might just connect in an unexpected way. You might connect to an African woman in a way that you haven’t before, and this may begin to bridge a gap between two communities that usually pass in the night. It is also important to challenge common perceptions of what African women are capable of in terms of art, excellence, and contributions. It also shows Nigerians what is possible from Nigeria. Interview by Rebecca Curran, a dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University ('18).
americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 3
WHEN HEAR WORD! CAME TO HARVARD—FINALLY by Professor Biodun Jeyifo
Following a workshop presentation of Hear Word! at the Harvard Dance Center in 2016, Harvard Professor Biodun Jeyifo wrote this article for Nigeria’s The Nation newspaper, reflecting on the complex relationship between gender and language reflected in the production. The article has been excerpted for this printing. Gboro, iyawo gboro/ Gboro, iyawo gboro so’ko lenu! [Listen, woman, listen/ listen, wife, listen and obey your husband!] —From a popular Yoruba “apala” song of the 1960s On a literal, non-idiomatic level, the Yoruba word gboro, that I have translated as “listen” in the epigraph to this piece, is more accurately translated as “hear word.” But as every self-respecting translator and linguist knows, literalism is the death of language, especially in its capacity to enable us to actually say what we mean and mean what we say. This is why “listen” is a much better translation of gboro in English than “hear word,” which is almost nonsensical in the English tongue. But then, along comes Nigerian Pidgin, which uses this same bad translation, “hear
word,” as its normative term not only for “listen,” but also for “listen and obey.” Tracing our way from this normative Pidgin mistranslation back to the song fragment in our epigraph, we find rather unexpectedly that in Yoruba, “gboro” also means “listen and obey.” More felicitously, it means “listen and comply with what you hear, what you’re told.” Thus, both in Yoruba and Pidgin English—and I dare say most Nigerian languages—the word for “listen,” when used beyond the mere phenomenology of sound, really serves as a powerful normative tool for enforcing obedience and compliance with the established order of things. This is why though in the song fragment in the epigraph only one woman, one wife is addressed, the command is actually to all wives, all women: “wives, obey your husbands; women, accept that it is a man’s world!” In contemporary radical cultural theory and criticism, a word, a phrase that has such power of constructing and imposing identity is said to be ideological in the most effective way possible. But what does all this have to do with the subject of this essay? Well, these thoughts on language, gender, identity, and human equality came to me after Hear Word!, an all-female theatrical production on the condition of women in contemporary Nigerian society came to Harvard, but only after I had thought deeply about the impact of the performance.
Told through a series of vignettes inspired by Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues and Ntozake Shange's for colored girls..., Hear Word! shares stories gathered through conversations with women across Nigeria.
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In getting to the heart of the discussion in this piece, I draw attention to the main artistic and structural features of the performance. Hear Word! combines the best of individual character acting with ensemble group performance. In laywoman or layman language, that means that in some of the twenty-two pieces of stories making up the entire production, it seemed that one was watching a slice of a dramatic play exploring the emotional and psychic depths of one character’s soul, while in other pieces, it seemed as if one was watching experiences common to women as a group, as half of the human race within one particular national community, Nigeria. What exactly does this observation, this claim, mean? If you are either an outright misogynist or a covert male and/or female opponent of gender equality and the empowerment of women of all social groups and classes in Nigeria, you could—and perhaps would—argue that Hear Word! seems to be doing too much all at once. The twenty-two pieces in the production just about cover the demographic and regional diversity of the whole country, from the North to the South-south and from the East to the West. The list of issues and topics it covers is truly staggering: the chastening oppressions of child marriages in some parts of the North; in the South, the moral cynicism of families that participate in the trafficking of their own daughters and nieces in the international trade in abducted or enslaved sex workers; the chillingly unhappy fates of widows in “traditional” marriages in which the deaths of husbands transform women into non-persons in many parts of the country; sexual violence, rape, and the ensuing silencing of the victims after the act, within and outside the family as a social unit; the relentless, unending, and “universal” chorus of the preference for male as opposed to female children; the ubiquitous practice of training girls and young women to devalue and degrade the girl or woman who tries to set goals and targets that are considered “male”; the often slow and inchoate nature of girls’ and women’s coming to consciousness of themselves as innately valuable and worthy of respect from men and other women. The list goes on and on, and, moreover, the stories and anecdotes are legion: Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True is truly a compendium that apparently wishes to tell it all, almost as if no other chance will ever arise to tell these stories again.
So, how did the combination of individual character acting and ensemble performance of the whole group rise to the challenge of this driven, relentless inclusiveness of all the alienating challenges that women face in Nigeria today? In responding to this question, we must return to our opening reflections on the linguistic and ideological dimensions of the phrase “hear word” as a Nigerian Pidgin rendition of the most controlling and repressive term for the oppression of women, from infancy as a girlchild to adulthood as a married, unmarried, or widowed woman. Everyone reading this piece who speaks and/or understands Nigerian Pidgin has heard the phrase used in one or two of its many controlling forms: “you no wan’ hear word?”; “the porson wey no dey hear word, na trouble go teach am sense!”; “wetin we fit do for dis pickin make e begin dey hear word?”; “Ha, you no know am, dem done beat am, beat am, still she no de hear word!” It was a stroke of simple but profound genius for Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True to have hit on this keyword, this trope of ideological control and normalization of oppression that universally applies to diverse groups and situations but finds its greatest functional power of coercion and intimidation in application to women and children as the anchor for all its otherwise staggering number of tales, anecdotes, dances, jokes, and songs. At the most obvious level, as one watched the play, it became more and more apparent that the first part of the whole performance comprising about twelve of the twenty-two stories dealt with “hear word” in its repressive, negative constructs while the closing ten narratives reversed the dominant, controlling form and began a counter-discourse, a counter-narrative of liberation in which the term “hear word” was now being addressed to both the oppressors and the dominated. But at a more fundamental level beyond the structure of the contents of the production, the whole performance came to encode a powerful feminist vision of both oppression and liberation as being, in the final analysis, embodied. Speaking for myself, I think that the inspired combination of brilliant individual character acting with ensemble performance made this possible. Honorable Minister of Information and Culture, are you reading this piece? This is a show that did Nigeria proud at its first international outing at Harvard. This outing, this journey of this performance must now extend far beyond Cambridge, MA, to other parts of the world with large Nigerian and African diasporas.
Biodun Jeyifo is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.
americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 5
The A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training FAMILIAR
JAN. 19 - 21, 2018 AT THE EX
Written by Bostonbased playwright Kirsten Greenidge (Milk Like Sugar, Luck of the Irish), directed by Rebecca Bradshaw (Luna Gale, Stoneham Theatre; Bad Jews, Speakeasy Stage Company). Set on Martha's Vineyard in a family-owned clam shack, Familiar explores familial ties and the chaos that ensues when one’s world changes as swiftly as the tides.
ASSISTANCE MAR. 15 - 17, 2018 AT THE EX
Directed by Scott Zigler (Dying for It, Elemenopea), Leslye Headland’s Assistance is a biting, high-octane satire about our attraction to power and what we’re willing to sacrifice to stay in its orbit.
APR. 9, 2018 IN NEW YORK CITY APRIL 16 & 17, 2018 IN LOS ANGELES
The A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training Class of 2018 will be performing scenes in New York City and Los Angeles for casting directors. Learn more at harvardshowcase.com
Before graduating in May, acting students at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training perform a season of fully-staged productions and travel to New York and Los Angeles to present a showcase of their work.
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THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY Familiar Director Rebecca Bradshaw on creativity's place in a complex world
In January, the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training will present Boston-based playwright Kirsten Greenidge's Familiar. Production Dramaturg Elizabeth Amos spoke with Director Rebecca Bradshaw about the contemporary relevance of this piece about family and the forces beyond their control, set in a clam shack on Martha's Vineyard. How did you come to know Kirsten Greenidge, the playwright of Familiar? What was your introduction to her work? Kirsten is a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, so she’s had a relationship with the Huntington Theatre Company, where I work as a producer, for many years. We’ve produced two of her plays for the mainstage (Luck of the Irish and Milk Like Sugar), and this past summer, I produced a new play that she worked on at the Huntington's Summer Play Workshops (And Moira Spins). She’s a quiet force, but in her work there is such anger and passion. I’ve been following her career for many years but have never directed her work, which makes this project especially exciting. When seeking out new projects, what kind of material excites you as a director? What is it about Familiar that attracts you?
I love plays that challenge me. I love when plays have characters making choices I don’t immediately understand. I am not attracted to plays in which I feel like I get the world, I get what’s happening. Familiar is full of complex and nuanced characters. There are so many layers to these people, and they have a lot of secrets. I also find the magic realism that Kirsten brings to a lot of her plays intriguing. It gives the director a lot of leeway to make discoveries. Sometimes that freedom is scary because you want to have all the answers, but other times, it is freeing because it is non-concrete. Her magic realism gives you a sensation, but it doesn’t give you an exact context for that feeling. The audience can also bring their personal lives into the play, which I find very inviting. For theatermakers, the question of “Why this play now?” is an important consideration. How will the A.R.T. Institute’s production of Familiar interact with the context of today’s world? I’ve been having conversations lately about the idea that we should, “think globally, act locally.” We are inundated right now with world news: you wake up with awful stories popping up on your phone every day, and you forget about what’s right around you and
within your grasp. There is a scary world surrounding the family in this play, too, and each of them handles it differently. Archibald wants to explore it, while Jill wants to hold him safely back, as if she’s trying to hold onto the thing that’s closest to her rather than letting it go into a world she knows is terrifying. I find that relationship very true to anyone trying to protect their loved ones from the realities of the world right now. The play also explores the reverse of that dynamic in Maya, who feels like she needs to just dig a hole and escape. I find that notion very relatable, too. I think that by sitting with each of these characters, we can learn something about ourselves and our neighbors in today’s world. At this early stage, are you able to give us any insight into your creative vision for the production? There’s something about sand in a beach town that affects the entire lifestyle of the people who live there. Sand gets everywhere. There’s this feeling of sand being an irritant but also feeling like home. It’s a physical thing from the outside world that intrudes upon protected interior worlds. I love working with something that’s physical and tangible that actors can play with. There’s something about sand that I know I want to play with because whether they’re standing on it, dancing in it, or whirling in it, there’s potential to create exciting movement on stage. As this is an A.R.T. Institute production, you’ll be working with graduate student actors. Having worked with student actors before, what do you enjoy about directing in an educational setting? With universities, there is often more focus on the process, which I really value. My favorite moments as a director are in the rehearsal room. I love cracking open characters with students because I feel that they bring an investigative energy to the process of finding out who a character is. Also, with university actors there is a comradery between the students because they’ve been working intensely with each other in their classes. There is something I really love about the ensemble work that’s already engrained in students who have been in the classroom with each other for months or years.
Interview by Elizabeth Amos, a dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University ('18).
americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 7
A.R.T.'s exploration of vibrant, cutting-edge performance continues QUEER HEARTACHE
OBERON S T N E S E R P
FEB. 9 - 10, 2018 AT OBERON
Kit Yan is an awardwinning, queer, trans, Asian-American poet from Hawaii. Queer Heartache is his solo slam poetry show that explores his identities, asks what queer hearts and families are made of, and interrogates the forces that constantly work to break them apart. Returning after a presentation at OBERON's I.D. Festival in 2017, Queer Heartache has also been featured at the Chicago Fringe Festival (Artists' Choice, Audience Choice, Spirit of Fringe Awards) the San Francisco Fringe Festival (Volunteers' Choice, Best of Fringe Awards), and 2016's first annual New York Trans Theatre Festival.
MAR. 22 - 24, 2018 AT OBERON
It is the year of the Water Dragon and the eve of Grandma Mariaâ€™s 60th birthday. By the light of the karaoke machine, fueled by pork dumplings and Diet Pepsi, she shares a dark secret from her Filipino gangster past with one lucky grandchild. Traversing 50 years of faulty family memories, Seattle-based performer Sara Porkalob presents this timely new musical about what it means to come to America.
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americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 8
DRAGON LADY: ONE MOTHER OF A MUSICAL
Photo: Robert Wade/Courtesy of Intiman Theatre (Seattle, Washington).
by Manuel R. Cawaling and Erin Murray
The grim guitar intro of The Animals' “The House of the Rising Sun” pushes through the air as Maria (played by Sara Porkalob), dressed all in black with cropped pants, a Tangzhuang shirt, and bun in her hair complete with hair stick, enters the dated, finished basement where she lives in her son’s house. The tune is familiar, but the words have been changed to reflect her journey from the South Pacific to Pacific Northwest and current lifestyle as a badass Filipino immigrant and grandma—“I’ve always wanted to sing on stage.” She sings on a new karaoke machine which boasts a remix button, she explains, then deftly inserts the opening verse of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” into The Animals’ iconic guitar anthem. Adding her own narrative where it suits her, of course. So begins Dragon Lady, written and performed by Sara Porkalob, directed by Andrew Russell for Intiman Theatre in Seattle, Washington; from this point on we learn that we are downstairs with Maria on her sixtieth birthday, while a party in her honor rages above. Sixtieth birthdays—“the most important of your old person birthdays”—are for telling important stories to your family. Maria then explains that she doesn’t care to talk to the people upstairs, as she’d rather talk to us: her favorite grandchild. Now is the time to cast a light on certain murky corners of the family mysteries, though some— like where she absconded to when she left her five children alone for two weeks—will remain. While we are introduced to some family stories by her children’s descriptions, Maria will fill in some blanks and add her own narrative to these tales. Where it suits her. Maria regales us with jaw-dropping stories about growing up on the streets of Manila, entertaining as a torch singer at a local lounge, and how she came to be a single mother on the shores of Bremerton, Washington. Porkalob plays every character Maria encounters from the gang boss who stole her grandmother’s heart to Maria’s five children (Porkalob’s own aunts and uncles) to the nurse who introduces Maria to her first grandchild, Sara. These dynamic, carefully constructed character switches are interspersed with phenomenal karaoke performances by Maria, sung by Porkalob, with songs like “Smoke
Gets In Your Eyes” and, of course, “Dragon Lady.” The flight of Dragon Lady started in 2012 when Porkalob was finishing her degree at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Porkalob was about to graduate as a Filipino actress into the industry of American theater and its dearth of choice for actors of color—Asian stories in particular and Filipino stories even more specifically. After years of studying how to make herself into a theater technician capable of carrying out the demands of roles written by primarily dead white men of European descent, Porkalob was searching for a sense of self. Hence, she turned to stories of her family’s history which flowed inconsistently from her grandmother. While the story has taken many shapes on the streets of Seattle— Porkalob has workshopped over four different versions of various lengths, each with different titles—the musical aspect of the story first appeared in January 2017 when Intiman Theatre Producing Artistic Director, Andrew Russell, first caught sight of it. After years of independent development, Porkalob found the collaboration she needed with Russell and Intiman to release Dragon Lady for her world premiere. With her mission clearly defined, Porkalob succeeded by shattering the need of a strictly Aristotelian plot structure and creating a space for a Filipino story so unique it envelops every audience member regardless of ethnicity. Time and place are fluid and ever-changing in Dragon Lady, like family conversations are prone to be: we travel back and forth between the current sixtieth birthday celebration to 1950s Manila, to a 1960s Manila night club, to a 1970s Bremerton trailer park almost seamlessly as Porkalob creates every character. At times it seems unclear whether sixty-year-old Maria or younger Maria is telling the story (all while Porkalob is literally doing the telling), yet it is that anxiety of narration that makes those moments all the more captivating. Dragon Lady moves, like all family gatherings do when an elder is speaking, with stories burbling forth unplanned, only when and if they are summoned, though moving generally in a chronological progression. The result of this organic storytelling structure is the realization
that the story is not the point of the evening, but rather the articulation of the woman before the viewer. This calling forth of Maria, mother and grandmother, child of a gangster and freshly moored immigrant, glowing featured headliner and impoverished single mother, makes this story incredibly Filipino and simultaneously universal. There are many observations that Asians, particularly Filipinos, will enjoy: the horror at the thought of rice in a box, the celebration of Spam, the almost unthinkable task of making dinuguan, and karaoke with plenty of reverb. But the play is also about a woman who has been placed in a series of corners and fought her way out by her own mettle. This is the story of an immigrant woman who arrived in a strange land and received no welcome. This is the story of a child who was forced to grow up before her time. Your exact tiya, auntie, or mother is not on that stage, but she is present, her struggles and failures acknowledged. It is this spirit that seems inherently Filipino: the face of trauma and hardships is couched in the faux glitz and glamour of karaoke. In the depths of poverty and challenges, we sing. With lots of reverb.
Manuel R. Cawaling is a Board Member for Cultural Access Washington and has served as Executive Director of Youth Theatre Northwest since May 2008. Erin Murray is a director and educator currently based in Seattle. She has directed projects for Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, and more. A version of this piece, "Dragon Lady: One Mother of a Musical" was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theater community, on Oct. 17, 2017.
americanrepertorytheater.org 2017/18 Season 9
FEBRUARY 24 MARCH 25, 2018 AT EMERSON PARAMOUNT CENTER’S ROBERT J. ORCHARD STAGE
The White Card Written by Claudia Rankine Directed by Diane Paulus Dramaturgy P. Carl Co-produced by ArtsEmerson and A.R.T.
At a dinner party thrown by an influential Manhattan couple for an upand-coming artist, questions arise about what—and who—is actually on display. Claudia Rankine’s 2014 New York Times best-selling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, unpacked the insidious ways in which racism manifests itself in everyday situations. Now, this worldpremiere play poses the question, “Can American society progress if whiteness stays invisible?” The White Card is commissioned by ArtsEmerson, Boston, MA, in association with American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, and The Broad Stage, Santa Monica, CA. ASL Interpreted Mar. 17, 2PM Audio Described Mar. 18, 2PM Student Matinee Mar. 7, 11AM LARGE PRINT
STAYING IN THE ROOM
How do we stage the conversation that has stalled so many times before?
P. CARL: Claudia, you and I have spent a lot of time together in this last year making a play. One of the things I wanted to ask you was: I keep thinking of your students’ faces post-election, and I’m looking at this incredible, filled theater, and I can feel the urgency in the audience. But knowing you, I know that you have felt this urgency all along. Does anything change for you? Is there a pre-election urgency and a post-election urgency, or is the work the same for you?
During the development process of The White Card, playwright Claudia Rankine (author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely), gave a presentation at ArtsEmerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre entitled “On Whiteness” to a sold-out house on March 24, 2017. The presentation shared research conducted by Rankine for “Constructions of Whiteness,” the course she teaches at Yale University. Following the presentation, Rankine further explored these themes, and their role in the development of The White Card, in a conversation with P. Carl (Dramaturg for The White Card). The following is an excerpt of that conversation. Video of the full presentation and conversation is available at howlround.com.
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CLAUDIA RANKINE: Well, I think there is a new urgency. I think that I will continue working as a writer in the way that I’ve always worked. But I do think as a citizen, my habits might change. They have changed. I now feel irresponsible if I don’t check the news in the morning. I now understand that more will be asked of me. I’m not the kind of person who usually would have gone to rallies or protests. But we can change. It’s one thing to buy into the myth that all of this is new. It’s not new, but what is new is the blatant disregard for the First Amendment. There are a lot of new things. And I think we as American citizens have to be vigilant in the ways that we should have been vigilant before. But now, we don’t have a pass. There’s a question from the audience that I’m going to read: “Given the historical roots of racism in the US, is the American experiment worth continuing, and do you think redemption is possible?” In 30 words or less.
"We don't know how to have a conversation about race and stay in the room," Rankine said, introducing a presentation about The White Card at London's Tate Modern in October 2017. Opening in Boston in February 2018, Rankine's world-premiere play grows out of a creative and critical relationship to that impasse: in seeking to stage "the conversation that has stalled so many times before," Rankine invites her audiences to remain present and imagine a different, more productive dialogue.
(Laughs.) I don’t know who wrote that question, but I wonder if they have children. You know, we are here—we have brought forward another generation of people. It is our responsibility to make this thing work. And part of making it work is to understand how it’s broken. And part of understanding how it’s broken is understanding that whiteness is made up of racism. That’s part of it. These false conversations around “I’m not racist”: let’s stop that. Let’s just move forward.
Photos: Kelly Davidson; Blue Flower Arts.
I’d love to talk about that a little bit. One of the things that has been so interesting about getting to know you well is that we’ve been at many dinner parties where I watch people try to prove themselves not racist to you. It’s fascinating to encounter. And as we’ve been talking about making theater, one of the questions we’ve been asking is, “can a white person and a black person have an authentic conversation about race, and how does that happen?” I feel like I’m being set up. (Laughs.) Well, that is the question. That is what we have been working on with the play: how do you stage the conversation that has stalled so many times before? And that is the biggest conundrum in my creative life right now. How do you make that happen? So—it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. In the talk, you mentioned the idea of “internalized dominance” versus “white privilege.” First of all, the fact that
“white privilege” was first mentioned in 1988 is such a remarkable thing. But could you talk about “internalized dominance” and unpack that a little bit? Well, you know, sometimes—when I’m relaxing (Laughs.)—I Google Robin DiAngelo and watch her talk about internalized dominance. You think I jest? This happens. The term is incredibly useful to me because it begins the discussion after the moment when you say, “white people are racist” and don’t feel defensive around that. Everything in the culture has worked over time—overtime—to allow white people to feel that dominance. And no individual in these United States could have avoided it. No matter what their intentions are. There is no stepping outside the culture. And for the Asian population, for the Arab population, for the black population, we have all known that whiteness is the most valuable thing. Not white people, but whiteness. That’s why people are using bleaching creams across the world—they’ll go that far. Because they’re not dummies. They want the jobs. They want what whiteness affords white people. It’s just the way it is. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to demonstrate in the play what it means to stand inside the notion of white dominance and still be able to move into an ethical position. That really would redeem whiteness, right? The recognition that the dominance is there. And given that, ask the question “what do we do now?”
Another thing you’ve talked about is inside this question of white dominance is white distress. And I wonder—because it feels like such a central piece of where we are politically right now—if you could talk a little bit more about your understanding of that. Well, Betsy McKay wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal [on March 23, 2017]. And it’s about the study done by two Princeton economists on the fact that, for white people, the mortality rate is rising. And it’s rising because of an increase in opiate use and suicide. And it’s affecting people 26 to 65 years old, across the spectrum, and usually in the category of people who don’t have a college degree. So that would seem like it’s pointing to economics, right? But that would also mean that African Americans in that category or Asian Americans in that category would also be committing suicide. But they’re not. So, why are white people suddenly so depressed? They’re depressed because this idea of dominance, this internalized dominance, was meant to play out in their lives. And suddenly, due to many things—outsourcing, you know, technology, many things—they don’t have jobs, they don’t have health insurance, they don’t have a lot of things. And other people, like black people, let’s say, who don’t have those things, are like, “Oh, we never had those things.” But white people are like, “Wait, you said that those things were rights. I had the right to
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those things.” I mean, when you have people like Dylann Roof going into that Bible study and shooting all those people—sure, that’s racism. But there’s also something else tied to it. It’s a sense that “something has gone very wrong in my life.” The easy answer is, “it must be the black person. The black guy did it. So, I need to kill them.” So, all you black people, you better start getting those vests. They cost $400. (Laughs.) But there’s also true despair. And it has to do with the sense that “these things were my right as a white person. You told me I was white, so therefore, all these resources were mine. All of this mobility was mine. And now I don’t have that. So, I’m going to take myself out, and I might take some of you all out with me.” So I think, that’s what’s going on with them. Finally, I’d love to bring us to the question of art and your work. I feel like your work has had such an impact in showing us the importance of art in changing the conversation in this country about race. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your life as an artist inside the frame of this conversation that you’re still trying to get at. How important is it to have time to be an artist? I think about that
with the funding of the NEA threatened. Many artists right now, I think, feel, “I don’t have time to do art. I have to go do these other things.” How do you stay connected to the art inside the urgency? Well, I think one of the things that is amazing about artists is, you never did it for the money. That was never the thing motivating you in the first place. And so I feel like we will continue to work. We were in a workshop in New York earlier this week, developing the play, and at one point, I looked at this table, and there were a dozen people around the table making a piece of art—bringing the full commitment of their imaginative, professional drive and will towards the creation of the piece. It made me proud to be in that room. I don’t know what it looked like for you, Carl, but when I graduated from Williams, I went to work in a law firm. And I was sure I was going to go to law school. You know, my parents were immigrants; I’m an immigrant. Can you imagine the conversation? “So, I think I might be a poet.” My parents would have been like, “What is that? Excuse me?” So it took me something like four years to back out of that law firm. And I did because I had to, because there was something in
me that was pushing me forward in terms of what language can do. And the only reason I was interested in what language can do was because I knew its profound effect on me. I knew how I felt as a reader. I knew what I had learned in the theater. So, I think that the issue of defunding of the NEA is tragic. It’s tragic that a first world country would even consider that. But there are always two things. There is the reality of the tragedy, and then there’s us. The will of the people. So, this is it. We are inside the will of the people. And I’m curious to see how far it will get us.
The recipient of a 2017 Art of Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation, P. Carl is the Dramaturg for The White Card, a Distinguished Artist in Residence on the faculty of Emerson College, and a frequent writer and speaker on the evolution of theater practice and theory.
A DYNAMIC SERIES OF EVENTS ACTIVATING PUBLIC DIALOGUE ON RACE AND IDENTITY IN AMERICA January - March 2018 Applications open now ArtsEmerson and American Repertory Theater invite individuals and groups from Boston, Cambridge, and beyond to join us in a dynamic project exploring the construction of race and identity in America. Citizen Read will include facilitated conversations about Rankine's 2014 New York Times bestselling book of poetry Citizen: An American Lyric in book clubs throughout Boston and Cambridge, a public dialogue featuring Claudia Rankine and book club participants, and an opportunity to attend the world premiere of Rankine’s new play, The White Card. Space is limited and early registration is strongly encouraged. Visit ArtsEmerson.org or AmericanRepertoryTheater.org to apply. For questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Registration opened November 2017. Presented by:
In partnership with:
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Published on Nov 27, 2017