The Contemporary American Theater Festival is entering its 27th year and promises to deliver another round of fresh, cutting-edge performances undeniably relevant to the times.
We took a look at three of the six performances this month. While all are set in different points in modern history, each play still grapples with topics that are not absent from almost daily discussions of a political nature in our present century.
— Berta, Berta —
Angelica Chéri’s play Berta, Berta, set in the 1920s, is billed as a love story. The title character is reunited with her long-lost lover, Leroy, as he is preparing to enter prison.
Chéri wrote the play after seeing a performance of The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. In the play, a group of male characters sing a prison song called “Berta, Berta.”
“It pierced me in such a way, because we typically don’t interact with prison songs in person anymore,” she said. “I then went on to learn that ‘Berta Berta’ is an actual prison song—originating in Parchman Farm Mississippi State Penitentiary.”
Chéri noted that she couldn’t find any historical accounts about the subject of the song or who first sang or wrote it.
“So, I decided to make one up,” she maintained. “Equally as prevalent as the songwriter’s pain and turmoil is his unshakable love for Berta. His love was so palpable that other men joined his song, not knowing this woman, but knowing his passion. That’s a powerful love.”
Even though the play is set nearly a century ago, the dynamics of it won’t be foreign to modern audiences. Perhaps more fear-generating, though, is the area of imprisonment and the prospect of what those who are convicted of a crime fear as their intake day looms.
“The issue of the prison industrial complex arguably doesn’t garner as much galvanization as many other issues of reformation,” said Chéri. “Perhaps because it’s an issue connected to the very injustice upon which our country was formed: slave labor.”
She added that she doesn’t believe life in a prison 100 years ago was that different from today. “The only difference is the labor; men no longer pick cotton, they assemble desks. The treatment, the abuse, the dehumanization, the wrongful imprisonment is the same.”
D.W. Gregory’s play is a thriller with a political twist, and features a topic sure to resonate with many in the post-2016 election era. Memoirs … deals with the Stalin-regime’s use of propaganda in the Soviet Union.
As current U.S. society lives within an era where “fake news” is leveled upon any claim that a politician, government official, or even private citizen disagrees with or simply refuses to accept (not to mention the ability of large swathes of the populace to be swayed by a single cable news station or, at times, the semi-incoherent assertions of a single politician), Gregory’s play seems especially timely.
“I’d say the subject matter is particularly ripe at the moment,” she emphasized. “I don’t know if anyone would have embraced it ten years ago, but I certainly hope theatre will be producing it ten years from now.”
Her play follows a Soviet journalist, a psychologist, and a government censor over the course of 20 years. They all share some complicity in, but also suffer from, the utilization of propaganda during Stalin’s time as head of the Soviet Union.
— The Cake —
Bekah Brunstetter’s play focuses on a small North Carolina bakery owned by “Della.” Her best friend’s daughter, living in New York, returns to the South for her wedding and commissions Della to bake the wedding cake. A fairly devout Christian, Della’s world shifts as she discovers the marriage will not be between a man and a woman, but two women.
The play features a comedic air, but still explores an ongoing issue in American society. Brunstetter’s name may be familiar to viewers of This is Us (NBC), a television program for which she serves as a writer.
Brunstetter grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Winston-Salem (NC). She said she began to question some of the teachings as she learned more about the world and met different people—many of them through theater programs.
“I have a lot of empathy for people who live their lives according to a faith and those trying to embrace that faith,” she affirmed—admitting there is now some separation between her own outlook on social and religious issues and the outlook her faith taught.
She began writing her play in 2014, and was almost worried it would be dated from the start. “We were moving in a more progressive direction—as a country,” she said. “Then 2016 happened. Everything immediately became more divided after Trump. The play became necessary. The world caught up with it.”
Shortly before press time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case dealing specifically with the topic of a bakery that refused to accept an order for a cake from two men who wished to marry.
While Brunstetter’s play examines a similar issue with a lighter touch, it is exceptionally timely in the summer of 2018.
While theatre has never, on the whole, been anti-political or devoid of commentary of current events or officials, the U.S. has entered into a hyper-partisan era over the past 20 years, tempting many playwrights to tackle pressing social justice issues in their work.
“[With theatre], we are in the same physical space with love, laughter, violence, sensuality and so forth,” Chéri indicated. “In this Trump Age, it is especially important for theatre to engage us in public conversation with our humanity. Our unique differences connect us more than they separate us. Nothing highlights that more than sitting in a theater, watching a story about people who look very different than you do, hearing a dialect that sounds nothing like the way you speak—perhaps with religious views exponentially different than yours.”
Brunstetter agreed. “There’s so much going on and people are unable to process it all.”
She further argued that plays do what a news article can’t—and that’s put a human body and dimension to every social issue. “Plays make you think of the humanity of every decision.”
The Road to Now
Gregory has been writing plays for about 25 years. She credits her interest in acting with being the driving force behind putting pen to paper.
“I performed for a little while—community theatre productions at the time. But I found I was much more interested in the creation of stories for stage. Then I stumbled onto a playwriting workshop, where I spent a few years writing dreadful one-acts with no plots.”
She added, “One day, something clicked”—resulting in a play that won a national competition.
Chéri wrote her first play at the age of 14 for a school class—which proved a first step for her. “Two years later, since there had been no theater productions at my high school since a production of Grease my freshman year, I wrote, directed, and produced a full-length play.”
After that experience, she said, “I never looked back.”