Xtra in Arcata

  • March 3, 2011

By William Kowinski

Under different circumstances, the four plays that HSU hosted during the mid-February Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival would be major theatrical events on the North Coast. This is especially true of Xtigone, a re-telling of the Antigone myth to address urban gun violence,by Chicago playwright and actor Nambi E. Kelley, presented here by California State University East Bay.

“This play is my response to the gunshots I hear outside my window,” Kelley wrote to me in an email, “and is for the children I see hanging in the streets with guns in their back pockets with no one stopping them from hurting themselves and each other.”

At the same time that Kelley was confronting such issues in Chicago, East Bay director Darryl V. Jones wanted to address gun violence against youth in the Bay Area. L. Peter Callendar, artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, brought the two together, resulting in this production of Xtigone.

The play’s future already includes a staged reading at LaMaMa in New York (with the playwright playing Xtigone), and a full production in the fall by the African American Shakespeare Company.

I understood the story to be this: Marcellus is the new mayor of Chicago, but his two nephews, each the head of a rival gang, are gunned down just as they were ending their violence at his behest. It turns out that Marcellus himself arranged the hit. His financial support comes from those who profit from guns. The Antigone figure, sister to one of the nephews, defies Marcellus and causes a community uproar. Marcellus condemns her to a living death, but when his reign is threatened he relents, though too late to prevent a series of tragic consequences. The chorus implores him to “Listen to the people.”

Why Antigone? “Because to me it is a play about a single voice affecting change, and about how revolution comes at the hands of the young,” Kelley responded. “I believe our children in this country, certainly in my city, are in a war, and the people who are supposed to protect them, don’t.” 

The rapid first act of the East Bay production revealed an idea whose time has come — the natural affinity of classical verse with hip hop rhythms and rap rhyming. Even when they went by me, students around me were responding to the words. Another impressive element was the integration of dance into the drama.

There was a central set that suggested Greek theatre, with tall, narrow screens behind it that effectively projected images of the city. Three tall platforms in the back were home to the singers and dancers of a Greek chorus. After the gun murders there was a particularly haunting moment when the female chorus voices became sirens, wailing like the approaching police and emergency vehicles, while retaining the weary sound of repeated human pain.

The pace slowed in the second act, as the tragic story unwound. Bay Area star Donald Lacy as the seer had one of several tasty acting moments. Apart from technical mishaps, there were issues of clarity in presentation and story. But the energy and focus on stage was electric. It was an exciting event, with great potential.

The other first production of a play was The Time Machine or Love Among the Eloi by Seattle playwright Edward Mast, presented by Ohlone College of suburban San Francisco. I was told that this re-imagining of the H.G. Wells novel was written years ago but revised for this first staging.

The basic Wells’ story is there: An Edwardian era inventor travels to the far future and finds a beautiful but simple race, the Eloi, only later to discover a separate race of Morlocks for whom the Eloi are literally their lunchmeat. This play focuses mostly on the Eloi, giving them an invented language that’s chiefly about sex. This imaginative production directed by Tom Blank had a sprawling set that encouraged a very acrobatic young cast. The time travel lighting effect was dazzling. But Mast seems to be playing mostly with ideas about Eden and the Fall, and only someone who already knows Wells’ intent to take the severe class divide of the industrial age to its logical future conclusion is likely to pick up its subtle presence in this production.

The other excellent productions were of plays some readers may have seen. St. Mary College’s Angels in America by Tony Kushner was more epic than the intimate HSU production directed by John Heckel some years ago. Bridget Carpenter’s Up was given a more buoyant production by the University of Idaho than the more dramatic one I saw at Oregon Shakespeare in 2006. I’ve written more about them at stagematters.blogspot.com.

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