Photo Credit: Dorothy Reeves
In times of fear and despair, we need the arts more than ever. Sometimes we need to escape, and other times—this is one of them—we need art that makes us reflect, gives us strength and perhaps offers glimmers of hope for humanity despite overwhelming darkness. As arts administrator, advocate and writer Howard Sherman writes:
On this post-election day of Nov. 9, I am reminded that the theater is my America, because it embraces a multiplicity of stories, of possibilities, of harsh realities and of unimaginable dreams. Its stories are the stories I want to have told, its songs are the songs I want to sing while driving on an autumn day. It is the place where I meet and commune with people on stage and in the audience, inclusive of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities or disabilities. I don’t look to the theatre for escape, but for engagement, which includes the potential for epiphany and joy.
We’re not ready for comedy or pure escapism right now. It’s time to stare harsh reality in the face and find hope and courage where we can.
Here's what you can find on local stages:
Eclipsed: A fresh-from-Broadway play based on the real stories and experiences of women living in the brutal reality of the Liberian civil war during the horrific regime of war criminal Charles Taylor, when the warlords who fought him were also brutal. It follows five women (Lauren King, Alys Barrow, Nickasey Freeman, Hawa Camara, Mari Reed), four of whom are captive “wives” and sex slaves to a rebel commanding officer. They try to protect the youngest one, wonder about the one who isn’t there, dread the return of the C.O. and talk about hair and a pop culture figure a world away.
The reality of their situation—and the continuing reality of so many women in equally appalling situations in parts of Africa and elsewhere—is the stuff of nightmares. And yet these women manage to laugh in the face of despair, because what else can you do to cope? They find strength in friendship, and in a sisterhood that includes tension and pettiness and jealousy. They persist in the face of appalling inhumanity.
It’s a lot for college students to take on, but this seems to be the right group to do it. UGA’s 123-year-old student theater troupe Thalian Blackfriars has grown increasingly socially conscious in its play selections in recent years. This season, they have aimed for more diversity and inclusion, to encourage social change and say something about the current state of the world. In particular, they wanted at least one show to have an all-female cast with strong roles for all of the women. Eclipsed knocks all of those goals out of the park; it’s a current, Tony-nominated Broadway hit that the Thalians are lucky to have the chance to produce, with additional support from the Black Theatrical Ensemble and under the advisement of theatre professor Amma Y Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin.
Director Jessica Browder was concerned about whether she, “a 20-year-old WASP-y” U.S. citizen, could dare attempt to represent the truth of the piece and the story of these women. Among the faculty and staff who encouraged her, one person made a particularly convincing point: “Who here understands the Liberian experience?” None of the students involved can personally comprehend the suffering these women have had to endure, but they have put in the intense rehearsal and research time (with three dramaturgs!) needed to present this powerful play.
“We have a playful rehearsal environment,” Browder says, “but they do physically feel the burden of telling that story; they feel that weight, but they share it. They know they don’t carry it on their own. That’s what happens with those real women. The weight is constantly there, but they are not subdued by it or submissive to it.”
Eclipsed by Danai Guirira is presented by the Thalian Blackfriars in the Cellar Theatre of the Fine Arts Building Tuesday, Nov. 15 and Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8, $5 for students, cash-only and available at the door. Visit ugathalian.wix.com/blackfriars for more information. Donations will be collected at the door for the African Women’s Development Fund, which can also provide light in times of darkness.
I Am My Own Wife: Speaking of oppressive regimes, another UGA student, Tom Von Dohlen, takes on a one-person show that spans both the Nazi era and the Iron Curtain/Cold War years. Directed by Joelle Arp-Dunham, it’s an independent production of Doug Wright’s play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived intensely dark times as openly transvestite. Based on a real person, the play is enacted by one person playing 35 different characters (including the playwright, family, friends and brutal figures of law and order), as Charlotte endures the cruelties enacted by the Gestapo and the East German secret police.
How much of Charlotte’s story is true is one of the questions of the play. As New York Times reviewer Bruce Weber writes, “to endure the world, people may lie about themselves or to themselves, and the lies are as important as the truth… Whatever the truth of Charlotte’s story, it is clear… that the story she tells about herself is the one she has convinced herself to believe.”
It’s an incredibly challenging role for one student to take on, and an irresistible opportunity for theater major Von Dohlen. There’s an eerie irony for him in doing this show here and now, at the close of an election many find frighteningly resonant with the atmosphere of 1930s Germany. It should be a funny, moving, surreal, horrifying and thought-provoking performance that reminds us how a person can survive, and survive well, the worst possible times.
I Am My Own Wife is presented by Tom Von Dohlen in the Arena Theatre of the Fine Arts Building Thursday, Nov. 17 and Friday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are free at the door, and donations are encouraged to the True Colors Fund, which aims to end LGBTQ youth homelessness. For more information, visit Facebook.
Cafe Apollinaire: The biannual arts event presented by the Georgia Fine Arts Academy includes music by a women’s vocal ensemble; 10-minute plays by UGA dramatic writing students Mariah Manoylov, Abraham Johnson and Miranda Russell; trailer and discussion of new independent film Liner Notes by John Patrick Bray; a reading by author Herb Meyer; visual art by Samuel James Cherof; and a performance of Bowen Craig’s “Real Estate Futures,” featuring Scotty Gannon, Kat Marie Mitchell, Sean Polite and Fran Teague. It’s at Ciné on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m., and tickets are free. For more information, visit georgiafinearts.org.