A pandemic is arguably not the optimal time to make theater, considering theaters are closed and actors can’t come within six feet of each other. Yet there’s some exciting work being done within pandemic parameters. This weekend I took in three remarkable performances developed during these locked-down days, as well as one recorded just prior to it (the riveting What the Constitution Means to Me, now on Amazon Prime)…plus three exhilarating Dodgers games. (Go, Dodgers!)
The three plays take three different approaches to COVID-era performances:
- written and recorded during the lockdown for at-will playback (Still)
- livestreamed one-time only (Poison Gun)
- in-person and outdoors (Fire Season)
All are solo performances that contain the presence of many characters and the passage of many years.
Playhouse Live, a new digital initiative from Pasadena Playhouse, commissioned spoken word artist Javon Johnson to write and perform Still. He is most poignant when discussing his family members, including a young nephew and his stepfather. With Johnson, the personal is political.
He describes a conversation with an uncle who tells him “Keep ‘em laughing, Jay.” There aren’t a lot of laughs in this show, but there are a lot of powerful words crammed into a tight 42 minutes.
At times Johnson almost runs out of breath, rushing to share his personal stories and their connected insights on race, gender, family, illness, America and words themselves. Poems rush from deep down inside him and his collective conscious, up through his lips, then pulse between the rhythm of professional performance and raw passion.
Words matter, and no one knows this better than Johnson, who holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University; his 2010 dissertation was entitled “My Words Dance: Doing Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Slam and Spoken Word Poetry Communities in Los Angeles and Chicago.”
Johnson is a busy guy. In addition to this show, he’s an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s teaching a public workshop called The Politics of Creativity, starting Oct. 27 and is the author of Ain’t Never Not Been Black and other books. He’s a performer to watch—and to listen to.
Tickets to Still are available here.
Dee Freeman tells the heart-rending story of her childhood in Poison Gun. It’s a tale of love and violence, of family broken, mended and eternally perplexing, a puzzle of infinite proportions.
Freeman has shared bits of her life in short pieces over the years, but only after being laid off during the COVID-19 lockdown was she able to finish this astounding work, with the support of director Juliette Jeffers. In a Q&A after the Oct. 17th performance, Freeman credited Jeffers with encouraging her to use different voices in her performance.
This she does to great effect as she relives her life at age six, with her beloved and booming grandfather, and after his murder, with a white police officer aware that she holds a key to solving the murder. She asks for not an iota of pity, throws no shade and leaves some questions unanswered. The result is a Rashomon of emotions that will stay with its audience a long time.
The show is part of the Whitefire Theatre’s solo series “Black Voices,” which runs through Nov. 15. Shows are not archived, but if you purchase a ticket to one, you can view it over the course of 48 hours. In the case of Poison Gun, I took advantage of the opportunity to hear certain elements of the story again, to better comprehend the remarkable forgiveness and love that are at its core.
The Woolsey Fire changed the face of a large swath of Los Angeles County, from Simi Valley to the ocean. One of its victims was Paramount Ranch in Agoura, including its Western Town, a set for countless movies and TV shows since the 1920s. Today, two years later, the greenery is returning and the Western Town is rising again.
The area, part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, is the site of Fire Season from Capital W. This unique production company has created a COVID-safe solo show by prose poetry writer Monica Miklas. In her hour-long live performance, she explores the creation of our planet and its geology, mythology, climate change and our connection to nature, with a few deeply personal details as well.
Audience members wander the area, but must stay within the broadcast range of the FM transmitted-show that plays over headphones. Miklas speaks live, in a voice that wouldn’t be out of place on a mediation app. Her listeners encounter random hikers, equestrians and the odd wildlife, adding to the experience. The area seems arid and damaged, but the show encourages a closer look, as well as a broader view.
Capital W is a collaboration between Miklas and Fire Season’s director, Lauren Ludwig. Since 2015 they have created “intimate immersive theater,” including one-on-one experiences. Fire Season is limited to eight audience members per performance.
Fire Season runs through Oct. 25th, not coincidentally the traditional end of California’s fire season. Tickets are $45 and $5 from each sold is donated to groups fighting the effects of climate change. Audience members must complete a liability waiver and have their temperatures taken on site.