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Imagine a locale somewhere in the land of 1984’s Big Brother, where “Customer Service Representatives” (CSRs) dictate one’s every move; constantly announce how the locale, called a “Performance Factory,” is there entirely for your benefit; and constantly instruct you, as a member of the audience, on how and where you are to stand, sit (“chairs: $2”), and spend. Imagine also, if you will, that what you are about to see is the result of an evening of performance as staged by this “Performance Factory,” and that we are also constantly reminded that we are in the theater, actors are before us, and that for our own safety, we must keep moving from performance space to performance space, or be left in dark, closed, unsafe places.
The “locale” you are imagining is Swain Hall, or more specifically, Studio 6, where StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance in now presenting White People, by NC native and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Jim Grimsley. The work, a series of vignettes tied together by this Big Brother presence, centers mostly on humor, but not entirely so; some of the scenes presented in this play are challenging, not only to us, the viewers, but also to the massive cast who presents them. The total number of all performers is 21, and they all play multiple characters.
But while some of these vignettes are, indeed, hilariously funny, it is difficult to come away from this show laughing. Combined in this organized chaos are a multitude of horrors, all of which are perpetuated on some individual cast member by another one — or by the Big Brother presence that watches over all. These include a man who is teaching his son the ways of bigotry; a young man who has savagely beaten a man to death, and now begs forgiveness of the corpse; a sudden and vicious “terrorist attack”; and an older man and wife who plot together to press his young mistress into indentured servitude. There is also a man wearing a red armband who stops all who walk by him and demands they turn around so he can examine them. If they challenge him on said demand, he shoots them in the back.
What makes all of this seemingly incongruous material a seamless whole is that 21-member cast previously mentioned, plus a handful of extraordinary unseen stage crew. The cast is made up primarily a class consisting of grad and undergrad students in Communications, which has been taught by director (and StreetSigns’ co-artistic director) Joseph Megel. The remainder are hand-picked Triangle actors who are already easily recognized by most of the theater-going populace. In all, the group performs more than 50 very fast to very long scenes, all of which are intense and seem to matter a tremendous deal to those who enact them. Doing so requires a level of intensity and energy that would leave a team of marathoners trembling and weak at the knees.
Vitality pours from this stage. Every single person in the play is animate, concentrated, entirely engrossed in his or her task, and engrossing to us, in return. And this energy is not only present in the parts played, but also in the various and sundry musical numbers that are presented throughout the show: “A Song About Unpleasant Odors,” “A Hymn to the Big Guy” (which might be God or might be Big Brother), a choral number using counterpoint which remarks “We Do Not Eat Gypsum,” “A Song About the Warmth of Bodies,” and the finale, “A Song About How Happy and Good Life Is,” which includes the entire cast.
Your reviewer is not holding out on you; while it would be a very good thing to be able to put all names of all the participants in this show down on paper for you, space simply does not permit. Suffice it to say that this gargantuan cast has poured its collective heart into this production, and it clearly shows. This is an important, engrossing, and even eye-opening work; and for it to be taken on by this cast proves not only their talents and their stamina; it also reveals an amazing amount of previously unmined talent as well as plain and simple chutzpah. The result is a marvel, and one definitely worth seeing.
It must be mentioned that White People contains violent imagery, strong language, gun shots, strobe, smoking, and sexual situations, and is not appropriate for anyone under 17. Nevertheless, it is one of the more amazing shows you will see this month, and that’s a pretty staggering feat in itself. Especially this month, when so much theater is available. Go see White People; they are all you have imagined and more.
Editor’s note: The cast of White People includes: Customer Service Representatives: Mariette Booth, Elisabeth Lewis Corley, Lindsey Ellerson, J Evarts, SaRAH! Kocz, Allan Maule, Lauren Shouse, Jordan Smith, and Sharlene Thomas; Technologists: Chris Duncan, Jennifer Nicole Gawler, Danielle Terrell, and Andrew Westin; Actors: Southey Blanton, Raphael J. Diaz, Marcia Edmundson, Gabriel Graetz, Barbette Hunter, Bo Odom, and Phoenix Wolfe; and Musician: Jake Sunding.
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents White People Thursday-Friday, April 21-22, and 28-29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 23, and 30, at 7 and 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. in the Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12, except $7 students with ID, and $5 Saturday late-night performances. Note: Student Rush, senior discounts, and group rates also are available. 919/843-3865. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Jim Grimsley: http://literati.net/Grimsley/ [inactive 10/05] and http://www.creativewriting.emory.edu/faculty/grimsley.html [inactive 1/08].
Joseph Megel, recently named co-artistic director (with Derek Goldman) of Chapel Hill, NC-based StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, will stage White People by prize-winning Tar Heel novelist and playwright Jim Grimsley April 14-May 1 in Swain Hall at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Grimsley will receive the 2005 The Literature Prize presented by the New York City-based American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“Having a almost a 10-year relationship directing Grimsley’s work (I directed the NYC production of The Lizard of Tarsus),” says Joseph Megel, “I’ve had the opportunity to read most of his plays and novels. I thought White People would be an amazingly challenging project to tackle — so here at StreetSigns and affiliated with Performance Studies and UNC — it was the place to tackle it.”
North Carolina born and bred and UNC educated, Jim Grimsley now calls Atlanta home, teaches at Emory University, and has served as a playwright in residence at 7Stages Theatre of Atlanta (since 1986) and About Face Theatre in Chicago (1999-2004). He is the author of The Ordinary (2004); Boulevard (2002), which was a Lambda Award finalist in the literature category; Kirith Kirin (2000), which won the 2001 Lambda Award in the science fiction and horror category; Comfort & Joy (1999), which was a Lambda Award finalist; Mr. Universe and Other Plays (1998), which was a Lambda Award finalist for drama; My Drowning (1997), which won the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers Award; Dream Boy (1997), which won the GLBTF Book Award for Fiction (the Stonewall Prize) from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the Lambda Award for Fiction; and Winter Birds (1994), which won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and earned a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. (StreetSigns staged Eric Rosen’s adaptation of Dream Boy in 2003.)
In 1987, Grimsley won the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Award for Best New American Playwright. In 1993, he won the Bryan Family Prize for Drama; and in 1997 and 2002, he was honored as Georgia Author of the Year in the fiction category. In 2003 and 2004, Jim Grimsley was a finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“White People may be the most challenging Grimsley play I’ve yet encountered,” claims Joseph Megel. “It is a puzzle — a youthful, angry, passionate, very funny puzzle. A kind of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners encounter with the concerns of the young Mr. Grimsley, a deceptively precise magician of the theater, then an artist at a point in his development when it made sense to appear to be chaotic.
Megel says, “I am interested in looking at this work now because I always think it can be informative to look at the early work of an important artist in the light of later works, but also because Grimsley’s penetrating anger about some of the ways in which the world works speaks to me now. You would think an experimental piece of youthful work written in a spirit of improvisation more than 15 years ago would be dated. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels fresh and even necessary in an age of superficial piety, invisible erosion of individual liberties, and governmental double speak.”
Megel adds, “This is Jim Grimsley’s early experimental meditation on the foibles of family, cubicle culture and consumerism, God and groceries, actors and audience. An ensemble of 20 actors will lead audiences through the world of the Performance Factory, in which, according to its author, ‘Performers produce performance for the consumption of an Audience under the direction of a Management Staff.’ In the Performance Factory, everything that happens is performance and many things are happening at once. It is up to the audience to choose what to consume and when and where.”
The cast for White People includes: Southey Blanton, Mariette Booth, Chris Chiron, Elisabeth Lewis Corley, Rafael J. Diaz, Chris Duncan, Marcia Edmundson, Lindsey Ellerson, J Evarts, Jennifer Nicole Gawler, Gabriel Graetz, Barbette Hunter, Sarah Kocz, Allan Maule, Clarence (Bo) Odom, Lauren Shouse, Jordan Smith, Jake Sunding, Danielle Terrell, Sharlene Thomas, and Andrew Westin.
In addition to director Joseph Megel, the show’s creative team includes set designer Rob Hamilton, scenic assistant Shannon Clark, lighting designer James Cuthrell, costume designer Diana Waldier, properties master Ray Dickie, fight choreographer Jay O’Berski, and sound designer Navit Mahal, among others.
According to Megel, the show’s set “creates a Performance Factory for the consumption of performance” and its lighting “creates a sense of movement as we move forward in time.”
Megel says the show’s costumes are an indicator of the relative status of actors and audience members alike: “Customer Service Reps are on the top of the hierarchy — [they are] in vests with ID badges. The audience is next — they wear what they wear. ([They are] next down on the food chain in status.) The Technologists [wear] technologist smocks and headsets. ([They have] lower status still.) The actors [wear] a uniform that they add to or change as their roles [change]. ([They have the] lowest status.)”
Joseph Megel warns that White People contains “adult content and language” and “gunshots [and] minimal smoke.”
He adds, “You may be asked to move. If you want a comfortable chair, you need to buy it…. Don’t feed the actors.”
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents White People Thursday-Friday, April 14-15, 21-22, and 28-29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 16, 23, and 30, at 7 and 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. in the Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12, except April 14th pay-what-you can preview, $7 students with ID, and $5 Saturday late-night performances. Note: Student Rush, senior discounts, and group rates also are available. 919/843-3865. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. Jim Grimsley: http://literati.net/Grimsley/ [inactive 10/05] and http://www.creativewriting.emory.edu/faculty/grimsley.html [inactive 1/08].