APT: Smart People

It would never be my intention to create best of lists of plays or concerts. My intention it to just record my responses and share them with you. But: OH. My. Goodness. If there was ever one play that I saw in person in 2020 or viewed virtually online that I want to see again, it is Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People. Immediately!

Because I am a professional grade procrastinator, I didn’t watch this online until its run was at its end (or get around to writing about it until now). So I didn’t leave myself the opportunity to watch it again. But I do want to see not only this play again…soon…but this exact virtual American Players Theatre’s Out of the Woods reading as directed by Melisa Pereyra. (So note to APT and Brenda DeVita: this is a perfect candidate for a reprise during Black History Month).

Smart people is about smart people. Four of them to be exact. And we know that they are smart because they work in and around Harvard. And in the contemporary vernacular they are ‘woke’ people when it comes to racism and sexism. Our four smart people are Ginny Yang, an Asian American psychologist played by Amy Kim Waschke; rising Black actor Valerie Johnston played by Cassia Thompson; Black surgical intern Jackson Moore played by Rasell Holt; and white neuroscientist Brian White played by Jeb Burris.

screen shot from virtual presentation

Over the course of the two act play they interact with each other on a one to one basis and eventually they all eventually meet. They are all acutely aware of racism and sexism and the full variety of stereotypes and push back promptly and directly when they find themselves on the receiving end.

But then it gets confusing, because during their initial interactions with one another, we see that they too are willing and able to apply stereotypes to strangers, and don’t see themselves doing it. This is probably the biggest takeaway from this play…our best intentions aren’t always enough…we need to be on guard against doing these same things in our own lives.

And finally all four of them come together for a dinner party at Brian White’s apartment…and they realize that they have all met at one time or another…and have all mistaken the intents and identities of the others…and the evening ends in a huge and painful meltdown…and a great deal of that hinges on the fact that Brian is…well I won’t go into spoiler mode here but playwright Lydia R. Diamond brings this to a heady and fraught climax…and leaving some big questions for us all to take to heart.

screen shot from virtual presentation

Now if this all reads as very contemporary, well it surely is. But the under story is that this is written for the period during the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama…so we clearly see that we haven’t progressed as much as we’d hoped.

This virtual presentation was performed live by APT on November 20, 2020 and was then available for viewing on PBS Wisconsin through December 31, 2020. It is part of their series of readings written by BIPOC writers, and created by BIPOC artists. It deserves to be exhibited again in the future, sooner rather than later!

APT: Nat Turner In Jerusalem

Written by Nathan Alan Davis; Directed by Gavin Lawrence; Le Shawn Banks as Nat Turner; Nate Burger as Thomas Gray and a prison guard.

This is a troubling play and I mean that in the best way. We are being challenged on our history on our society and in our beliefs…and are being pushed out of our comfort level…as I said…in the best way.

We meet Nat Turner in prison. It is his last night before being hung for his role in a slave rebellion. And we experience his interactions with two white men in his last hours. One is an attorney, Thomas Gray and the other, one of the jailers tasked with supervising Nat’s time in prison.

Mr. Davis presents us with a messianic Nat Turner…not the bitter angry man we might expect from someone in his position. A number of times he references the actions of Noah and compares them to his actions…as actions guided by the hand of God. Mr. Davis says that there is support for this messianic vision in the historical documentation.

And Nat is also charismatic. He certainly has affected both of the white men that he interacts with in the play. The jailer obviously has a great deal of empathy for Nat and is distressed by his coming execution. And he states several times that he will not be on duty when Nat is called to the gallows and exhibits real relief for that ‘luck’. But he has done some things to ease Nat’s suffering while imprisoned…and Nat often refers to him as ‘friend’. Although this night the jailer says that it is not right to call him, friend…and I wonder if that has to do with their relative social strata or his sense of helplessness in the face of Nat’s death.

Either way, in the conversations you realize that the jailer knows that his position in society isn’t that far from Nat’s other than he isn’t enslaved…but trapped in his station nonetheless.

Nat repeatedly requests that the jailer attend the hanging, something that he is loathe to do. But Nat says that he will look for him in the crowd. It seems their connection is deeper than the situation would seem to suggest. But after several requests, I don’t think we ever end with a consensus.

I can’t say enough about Le Shawn Banks depiction of Nat Turner here. He captures the messianic fervor and charismatic bent of the character that Mr. Davis has provided for him. He easily shows Nat’s enthusiasm for the word of scripture and his thorough knowledge and then moves to his humanity in his conversations with the jailer.

And then we have Thomas Gray, an attorney who is writing Nat’s story. Mr. Burger moves from the emphatic jailer to the slick attorney with just the simple move out of frame and back. Mr. Gray has most of Nat’s story completed and he is waving around the pages of dictation throughout his discourse with Nat. But tonight, on the eve of the hanging, he hopes to get Nat’s confession and his knowledge of other planned uprisings as the crowning piece for his story.

Nat initially is having none of it…and finally runs Mr. Gray through a few hoops before he agrees to talk. One of the themes that Mr. Gray uses to convince Nat that he’s a good guy is the fact that he sold his slaves. Says it several times. But from the lines between the lines, it would appear he sold his slaves under economic duress rather than altruism. And if you didn’t keep slaves because you found slavery a hateful institution, wouldn’t you free your slaves?

But here he is, although not a slave owner nor Nat’s owner…prepared to make money off of Nat Turner by copyrighting and selling his story.

There is a little side note here other than the slave vs. free…but the relative relationship between the two free white men based on their own stations in life. And that contempt seems to move in both directions between the jailer and the attorney.

This is a challenging play. The American Players Theatre did an outstanding job presenting it as a virtual Zoom production. Le Shawn Banks was simply incredible presenting the different personas of Nat Turner in his interactions with the other two characters. How he managed to do that within the limits of the computer frame with just the text and his face and a few gestures is a class in acting in itself. And again Nate Burger presents multiple characters in a play with ease and grace and clear story telling. I look forward to seeing both of these gentlemen on a physical stage in the future.

And someday I would like to hear Gavin Lawrence explain how a director goes from blocking out a physical play in space and sets and costumes and then so effectively pivots to Zoom…and so incredibly and succinctly tells this moving story.

This virtual presentation was performed live by APT on November 13, 2020 and was then available for viewing on PBS Wisconsin through December 31, 2020. It is part of their series of readings written by BIPOC writers, and created by BIPOC artists. It deserves to be exhibited again in the future, sooner rather than later!

APT: This Wonderful Life

So what do you do if your favorite holiday movie is ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and you are an actor who’s not working this holiday season because…you know. You grab hold of ‘This Wonderful Life’ by the throat and you take us all on a wonderful roller coaster of memories and observations and wonder.

This is the second of the virtual performances being presented by the American Players Theatre for the 2020 Holiday Season. The text is by Steve Murray and directed by William Brown. And ALL of the characters are impossibly and incredibly played by Nate Burger, who loves the movie more than any of us!

Now I know that we aren’t being deprived of the ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ movie experience the way we are missing live theater…but that’s absolutely no reason to miss this!!

First thing you do is visit the APT website and purchase a ticket. And then plan when you want to set aside eighty uninterrupted minutes necessary to take this all in and commence with the requisite laughter and tears. The video will be available until end of day December 29th, so plan accordingly.

And then just before you hit play on the video…forget everything you know about ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ the movie and be prepared to relearn and relive the experience of seeing it the first time. Believe me, Mr. Burger will give you every complexity of the story either by playing the character, acting out the various conversations, or through any number of strange interludes. And you will get more than the story this time…but also some timely comments about culture and society and economics that are writ large in the movie but is often overlooked for the story…so be forewarned…there is more than meets the eye here!

Nate Burger (as himself) screen grab from the trailer

This is an amazing adaptation…and Nate Burger as all 55 characters just throws himself into each and everyone. And if you followed my suggestion to forget everything you remember about the movie, you will laugh here. You will cry here. You will say to yourself, how could I have forgotten that? And more importantly, you will say, how did I not see that or feel that before? Because you will feel and say and wonder all of those things.

This production again proves that American Players Theatre has made these small virtual theatrical presentations their own. And they couldn’t have found a better production to stage this year and oh my goodness…they couldn’t have found a better actor for the role as Nate Burger. This presentation of ‘This Wonderful Life’ should become a holiday staple just as its inspiration, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is.

And marvel at the special effects and revel in the credits! LOL!

Here’s the trailer to get you in the spirit: