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If you are unfamiliar with the term "devised theatre," you are not alone. Although devising is a growing facet of dramatic art, audiences are generally new to it. In fact, to devise or to not devise is even a debate in the theatrical community. You see, a devised work is created with little-to-no text. Instead, the collaborators of the play, the creative team and actors, create what will be seen on stage. Often, the resulting work is a movement-heavy piece, relying on bodies to tell a story. These stories often include physical theatre elements based on the ideologies of notable figures like Anne Bogart and Jerzy Grotowski, but some theatre traditionalists still have trouble accepting devised theatre as part of the community.
Although devised theatre can be an acquired taste for some, UNC School of the Arts's production of Mother Tongue is a great first experience with devised theatre. It leans into the unusual, subverting the expectations of the audience from the moment they scan their tickets. This makes perfect sense, considering fourth year directing student Marina Zurita was inspired by Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children while creating this work. Brecht's work relied on alienating the audience throughout a piece, constantly reminding them that they were watching a play. This was done in order to keep the audience aware of the societal problems being discussed on stage, assuring the play was more than mere entertainment. This influence is obvious in Zurita and the other collaborator's work.
I first noticed these influences as we found our seats…on the stage. The audience was seated in a modified thrust on the stage of the Gerald Freedman Theatre. The entrance to the seating actually led audiences through the set. This was a wonderfully immersive experience and truly gave us the chance to get a sense of the environment in which the characters would live. The set, designed by Joelle Gonzalez, was an eccentric and beautiful arrangement of the everyday items we dispose of: cans, cardboard, and bottles were littered around the stage to create the world of the play. The lighting design by Taylor Gordon inspired feelings of comfort and home-like stagnation with hanging lamps and mason jars filled with fairy lights. This picture was made all the more magical with live musicians providing pre-show music as the audience entered. The absolutely strongest element of Mother Tongue was the enchanting underscore provided by the seven-person musical ensemble, featuring violins, vocals, a flute, guitar, and saxophone.
The director described Mother Tongue as a work in progress, and that is truly the best way to explain it. While the environment and world of the play has been painstakingly crafted, the story and connections within it still leave the audiences wanting more. This work follows seven Brazilian waste pickers, essential workers that deal with exported waste from other nations. It deals with their experiences with motherhood, weaving themes of wastefulness and materialism throughout. Strong and authentic performances were delivered by the entire cast. In fact, the most moving parts of the show were the isolated monologues, hauntingly lit in shockingly cold or colorful tones contrasting a blacked-out background. These moments are certain to remind audiences of their own experiences with motherhood, written with raw and powerful language.
Any team of collaborators brave enough to take on a devised piece should be commended for their creativity and vulnerability, as both are essential to the art of devising. UNCSA's production is an opportunity to cherish something we don't always acknowledge in theatre, the work in progress. It is our culture to seek the results, but the artist and those who consume art need to find greater value in the process of creation. If you are willing to be a part of that process, Mother Tongue is a must-see. It is a new, refreshing experience and a chance to lean into the non-traditional.
Mother Tongue continues through Saturday, April 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.