Mary Baldwin University’s undergraduate theatre department has had a transformative and multiple-award-winning season. As part of a major overhaul under Dr. Kerry Cooke, Prof. Molly Seremet and Prof JP Scheidler to decolonize the program and develop genuinely shared ownership between students, faculty, and community stakeholders, the department’s theatre season has struck out in bold new directions (including its award-winning production of Fairview as well as its outstanding productions of Cupid & Psyche and Small Mouth Sounds) while the program has built season-planning into its curriculum. Following the Fall course For All Seasons, where students were invited to pitch and debate shows for next year’s season, and a Spring Directing course in which scenes from the shows were workshopped, THEA 210 (taught by Kelsey Harrison) mounted six scenes in an intensive three weeks. This showcase presented the finished work, with the aim of informing the season selection for next year’s full productions.
What distinguished this showcase was the collective joy developed by a tight-knit community, many of whom have worked together repeatedly over the year, including both Theatre Majors and Minors and actors who have returned to this community again and again. From a skateboarding ASM to a rotating and hard-working company of actors, everyone around the stage seemed playfully invested in helping bring their colleagues’ work to fruition, and this was reflected in the choices of plays. Across each of the pieces existed some version of a desire to find meaning and connection, to communicate better in order to solve problems. This community seemed to have decided its mission, and this mission went beyond a desire for representation – though that was a big part of the evening – to a desire to do the work, practically, ethically, and intellectually.
Much of this work was apparently in the selections that most overtly foregrounded issues of class and race. Riane Tolliver’s thoughtful direction of a paired set of scenes from Lynn Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat juxtaposed two reunions: a white man and a Black man reunited with their mothers after eight years in prison. The tension in each pair was palpable; Evelyn Negaard’s performance as Tracey, stooped and tense on pain medication, hostile towards her white supremacist son Jason (Louis Altman) was particularly powerful, full of anger and disgust at a system which gives working people few options; in the paired storyline, Jonathan Delgado’s Chris bore the brunt of his mother Cynthia’s (Lasia Vanlue) anger at the injustices of the system with stoicism. The choice of this sequence beautifully foregrounded the complexity of the intersecting issues. Meanwhile, in a scene from Todd Logan’s Defamation directed by Austin Cox, Altman and Tolliver appeared as competing lawyers, strutting the stage while a Black woman (Vanlue) sued a white man (Sage Mocko) for defaming her by accusing her of stealing his watch. Here, the bathetic comic interjections of the judge (Delgado) created an absurdist frame, allowing comedy to reorient a difficult question as a kind of thought experiment (in the original play, the audience were asked to become the jury). Watching these young directors work through these complex, multi-faceted questions suggested a powerful potential direction for the Theatre season.
Juxtaposed with the social realism of race and class politics were two pieces, both directed by Libby Merchant, that embraced something more heightened and indulged the fascination that this group of students has repeatedly demonstrated this year with the intersection of comedy and pathos. Merchant herself performed a scene from Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, featuring Betty 2’s Pussy getting a chance to take a microphone and sing a song. Merchant’s performance here was brave – it began with her taking off her dress and exposing herself in soliloquy for the whole sequence – and demonstrated the confrontational potential of this hilarious piece (even if, shorn of the rest of the context of the play, it was difficult to imagine what the larger work might be like). 8 Minutes Left, on the other hand, developed a clear context for its short investigation of a scene with the highest stakes possible, as two friends reunited at the end of the world. The casting here was sublime. Maria Sarri’s manic energy as Trudy, desperate to make up for her feelings of being a bad friend by throwing an elaborate party in only eight minutes, contrasted beautifully with Jovita Roselene’s laid-back, gentle calm as Trudy’s friend Paula. Sarri wouldn’t slow down for a second as Trudy ploughed through the elements of a party (not even allowing Paula to get a knife for the cake and instead insisting they just bit down on the whole thing), while Trudy kindly and slowly pulled her friend together. For all that this was one of the most outright funny pieces, it was also one of the most quietly devastating as Trudy went through the entire gamut of emotions in trying to reconcile grief, joy, terror, and guilt in one short sitting, while Paula reassured her of what was most important.
The final two pieces, however, were deliberately intertwined in ways that showed off the technical skill of this company of students in displays of play that also insisted on community-forming. This evening-capper began with Claire Josefson and Molly Seremet’s co-directed Devised Puppet Show, a show deliberately designed to explore the potential of the students to use their own craft to tell a different kind of story. Seremet, who played host throughout the evening, was interrupted in an attempt to give a lecture on puppetry by the sudden emergence of a range of different kinds of puppet: Walter Pultz’s hand-operated Fab Rick, Josefson’s articulated Bluebird, the wheeled Rizzmaster Lance (Caroline Motley and JP Scheidler), and two tiny glove puppets of the warring Monkey and Starla (Sarri). The chaos of the puppets mimicked the principle of collaborative takeover, the authority of the professor and her projected slides literally being over-written by shadow puppets who tilted and then obscured the text until Seremet left the stage and the puppets bickered among themselves – until, to very pleasing cries from the audience, the seven-foot-tall human-operated Mogda (Kaitlyn Brockman) emerged to chasten everyone. As a proof of concept, this was a fabulous taste of the fun found in exploring the craft of puppeteering.
But even more delightfully, the cast of Footloose then emerged to chase the puppets off, complaining about the disruption to community space. Here, in the largest of the six pieces (directed by Cox and Tolliver), the company reassembled to find the perfect amalgamation of the issue pieces and the heightened creative potential enabled by showing off technical skill. Talford Hayden took centre-stage in the Kevin Bacon role of Ren, advocating for dance. Hayden’s natural charisma comes out best when he’s in roles that allow him to express himself loudly, and seeing him at the podium, pleading with Altman’s Reverend Shaw and finding the bits of the Bible that celebrate dance, felt like a natural fit (as well as beginning the tricky but potentially very rewarding work of exploring what how this text plays out with a Black man in the role of disruptor). Tolliver, Cox, Delgado, Sarri, Merchant, and Mocko all returned along with Joshua Dobson and Amaya Warner, the group building up the happy conclusions of Footloose before leaping into a full-blooded, beautifully choreographed (by Hayden) dance number. And in choosing a play to conclude the showcase which allowed the students to stage a societal conflict over issues, lighten and resolve it through heart-felt empathy, and then dance it out with a demonstration of the group’s technical skill, the piece encapsulated the key elements of the showcase. Regardless of what gets picked for next season, this showcase spoke to a theatre community that has begun seriously doing the work and taking ownership of its values, and which will hopefully continue to find ways to let everyone (literally or metaphorically) dance.