Plays for troubled times: addressing violence onstage
Plays for Troubled Times
The Assignment by Camilo Almonacid
555 Valley Road, West Orange
Through Dec. 9
Not Just October by Wanda Edwards
Partial proceeds for S.O.F.I.A.
Sunday, Dec. 16, 5 p.m.
United Way Building
60 South Fullerton Ave.
tinyurl.com/y9v9a39k for tickets
By GWEN OREL
“Relevant” is often used as a buzzword in the arts. Aesthetics are all very well, the thinking goes, but is it relevant? Does it speak to what’s going on in the world, right now?
Two organizations in Montclair are taking the idea of relevancy to heart. They are presenting theatrical works that deal with violence in its various forms.
Both organizations hope that the work they present will start conversations, as well as entertain and touch the heart.
At Luna Stage, Camilo Almonacid’s “The Assignment” (through Dec. 9) looks at the aftermath of gun violence: how people live.
Wanda Edwards’s “Not Just October,” a fundraiser for S.O.F.I.A. (Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates), presents four scenes of women talking about domestic violence: including some women telling true stories of what has happened to them. It has one performance slated for Dec. 16.
Neither play presents violence onstage.
“The Assignment” is about a teacher and an older student, who is on parole. They meet when he comes to her office, having missed the first day of class.
He’s not coming with a gun.
Instead, the play looks at the evolution of the teacher, who has had her own experience of gun violence, and how she and the older student, who committed a murder years before the play starts, come to understand one another.
“Our world is complicated right now and maybe this will help us think about it a little bit.” said Luna’s Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith, a Montclair resident, at a dress rehearsal of the piece. She wants audience members will “come to Luna, and have their lives changed.”
In “Not Just October” — the title refers to National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which occurs in October — you never see a dramatization of a man hitting a woman.
Instead, you see women telling their stories, and children talking to the audience.
The subject matter is especially relevant in Montclair following the recent deaths of two residents, Angela Bledsoe and Tameeka Johnson, at the hands of people they knew.
Wanda Edwards, writer and director of “Not Just October,” knows the piece will spark dialogue: this production is a revival of the show’s October presentation in Montclair. Edwards facilitates safe dating workshops and support groups at S.O.F.I.A.
Two of the women in the cast of “Not Just October” had interacted with Bledsoe, who was shot and killed at her home Oct. 23, when Bledsoe attended Vacation Bible School at Union Baptist Church last summer.
“My goal was to create a conversation, was to create a dialogue because you know, even if they had known about Angela, or tried to do something, would they have been able to change her fate? We don't know.
“However, the more that we know, the more that we’re prepared, the more the likelihood
that we’ll be able to save a life,” she said. But people don’t like to talk about it.”And so the goal was to create an atmosphere where you could watch a dialogue take place.”
And, like “The Assignment,” there is no violence onstage.
READING THE SIGNS
One of the striking things about “Not Just October,” which has a cast of 26, including more than a dozen children, is that many of the women tell their own stories. Those stories are not scripted: when the moment for them comes, the women step up and talk.
The play is divided into four scenes, and there are interludes of dance and poetry.
This past Saturday, half-a-dozen performers gathered to talk about their work on the show. Annette Johnson witnessed domestic violence against her mother and did not come to terms with it until she was 50.
Early in her marriage, S.O.F.I.A. board member Johnson recalled, every time she had an argument with her husband she packed a bag and left.
“I didn’t know how to respond, and I didn’t know what was coming on the other side of the disagreement, because I was always afraid it would escalate to something big,” she said. They worked it out and 35 years later they are still together.
Lorna Way was shot in the stomach by her boyfriend when she was six months pregnant. She tells that story onstage, when her husband, played by David Edouard, brings her lunch to her at work, and her coworkers notice her reaction and ask her what is wrong.
Wanda Leftwich’s cousin, Monica Paul, was killed in Montclair in June 2008, a victim of domestic violence. Paul was killed at the YMCA, in front of children.
Edouard is also related to Monica Paul. He is part of Eureka Lodge, a Freemason organization that is a big supporter of S.O.F.I.A.
Elroy Corbitt is a certified advocate against domestic violence, who has been a part of S.O.F.I.A. for eight years. Corbitt witnessed his own parents fighting. “I didn’t want it to be a part of my life, so if there’s anything I can do to encourage people to make sure it’s not part of their lives, I’m more than willing to do that,” he said.
Leftwich and Peggy A. Thompson both belong to Union Baptist Church, where they met Bledsoe. Both women say there were signs they wish they had caught.
Bledsoe was reserved, and would exit when church or school was done, they said. Leftwich became emotional talking about it. “Since it has happened, I’m going to speak for our congregation, there needs to be some type of workshops where churches need to be informed of warning signs,” she said.
Thompson, a minister, said that when she heard Bledsoe had been shot she went to look at
her registration: that’s when she discovered there was missing data.
Bledsoe had not given her address, phone number, email. That’s a big sign, Edwards agreed. Victims of abuse often fear volunteering any information.
Each of the play’s four scenes addresses the big issues in domestic violence: what are the warning sign, why victims stay, safety planning, and what about the children, she said. The scenes take place in a home, a place of worship, a workplace, and a school.
“The last scene, ‘What about the children,’ is probably one of the most powerful ones. We have the children say their name, how old they are: ‘Hi, my name is Kamai, I’m 9 years old, please don’t curse in front of me.’”
One of the most powerful things for her was looking out and seeing Corbitt and Eduoard. The two men have small roles, and when their scenes were done, Edwards would tell them they could go home.
But they never did.
“They would stay and support they would pull up a chair and they would stay in support if somebody was doing something wrong they would be going, no you’re supposed to be over there…” she said with a lugh.
It just really meant so much to us. And I don't know if they realized…” she choked up, and continued, tearfully, “I don't know if people realize how many times especially if we're having those moments where we are reliving and are afraid, to turn and see a man in the room that we knew was there to support us. I don’t know if they realize the impact that their presence had, just sitting in a chair.
“We didn’t know it then, but we know it now,” Corbitt said. The company laughed.
NOT A PERIOD PIECE
The roots of “The Assignment” are in true stories. Almonacid’s play is fiction, but grew out of workshops created by the group Houses of the Moon, which partnered people who were recently paroled for homicide with people who had lost family members to gun violence.
And at a certain point in the process, the company brought in Almonacid.
Kreith said she was excited when she came across his play, because even plays just a few years old that deal with gun violence feel like period pieces now.
“We are constantly being re-traumatized by the stories that we experience,” she said. She wants Luna Stage to be a catalyst for conversation in West Orange. There will be talkbacks with local activists and others beyond the community.
The play has been presented before, but Kreith worked with Almonacid, who is originally from Colombia and now lives in Queens, on some revisions.
Part of what has been strengthened is that the audience will understand the English teacher, Helen Payne, a little better, and that we see how the classwork connects to her past. The play takes place at a fictional college in New York City.
Director David Winitsky, who teaches at Cornell and lives in Philadelphia, directed at Luna
Stage when it was in Montclair, but not since.
His primary job is director of the Jewish Plays Project, which develops Jewish plays and musicals. The course he teaches at Cornell is about Jews and situation comedies.
Winitsky pointed out that the play includes many moments of humor: on Halloween, for example, Julian J. Torres, the student, comes to class as recyclables, with a necklace made of plastic cans and bottles.
It was an interesting challenge to be a white director in a play where both characters are people of color, he said.
“I get to defer to my actors when we talk about matters of culture and race and community. I defer to their experience, and allow them to take the reins on that.”
So the rehearsals themselves became a place “where we can actively try to break down the power relationships that sometimes come into play.”
For example, there used to be a perception that gun violence was more prevalent, even limited to, communities of color.
“We now live in a world where that is distinctly not true,” Winitsky said. “With the number of mass shootings happening, it’s something that happens to all of us on a weekly basis.” And the characters of color would have been conscious of the issues much sooner.
Winitsky finds himself drawn into the play both as a parent and as a student.
“I love the moment where [Julian] gets his paper back. It’s a B-minus, and he’s so excited about it. It’s funny and real. He’s not excited the way a regular student is. He’s excited he got a grade in school. It’s such a transformation of his life, that he should be on the level of all these other kids at this school, and somebody is grading his papers.
“Many of us took college as a foregone conclusion. I have students who complain about a B-. for him, the fact that he has a grade is transformational.”
Because the play has just the two characters, each character’s journey must be clearly seen and felt, and sculpting those arcs was Winitsky’s task.
Rafael, the student on parole, “has done something really severe, and feels how severe that is. He’s trying to do better. It’s inspirational in a lot of ways.”
Helen Payne is still mourning the loss of a child, 10 years later. She’s in a difficult position, where she doesn’t want to tell people “Stop talking about the child I lost,” but she wants to be appreciated for other parts of herself. Even parents who haven’t gone through something so terrible go through this in a more mundane way, Winitsky said: “They want to be more than a parent.”
Just as the two characters in “The Assignment” come together and communicate, though their experiences could easily drive them apart, Kreith hopes the Luna Stage audience will also have find connections in the theater.
Instead of audiences who self-segregate into the musical audience, the Black History Month audience, the Women’s Month audience, she hopes the audiences will blend.
“When you come to Luna, you are invited to have an experience that perhaps will invite you to see the world in a slightly different way, with people who are being invited to see the world in a slightly different way. And hopefully you’re starting from different points. It’s not like everybody’s having the same gestalt shift at the same time.”