Tag Archives: Theater

Plays I Love: Part I

I read a lot of plays. Between my work with the 50 Playwrights Project (50PP) and reading for pleasure, I normally read 2-3 plays per week. And, while I recommend some of these plays to arts leaders that I’ve built relationships with through my work with 50PP, the Latinx Theatre Commons, and the Houston theatre community, I often don’t have a public-facing venue to help spread the word about some of these plays that I love.

These are plays that I want to see as an audience member. Plays that excite me. Plays that make me think. Plays that I want to pay money to see. Some of them have been produced. Some of them have not. All of them deserve our attention.

So, without further ado, I give you the first in an occasional series: “Plays I Love.”

Black Super Hero Magic Mama by Inda Craig-Galván

Sabrina Jackson cannot cope with the death of her son by a White cop. Rather than herald the Black Lives Matter movement, Sabrina retreats inward, living out a comic book superhero fantasy. Will Sabrina stay in this dream world or return to reality and mourn her loss?

For more information on Craig-Galván’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange and her personal website.

The Diplomats by Nelson Díaz-Marcano

A few days before election night 2016, close friends Annie and Carlos are reunited in her small Astoria apartment during his first visit to New York since he moved to be with his husband in Florida. At first, it seems their relationship hasn’t changed. That is until Carlos brings an unexpected guest; Annie’s old best and estranged friend Gary. Throughout the course of the night they learn that while they may not have changed much as people, society has. Now they have to confront each other in a whole new reality and their relationships may never be the same.

For more information on Díaz-Marcano’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange.

Locusts Have No King by J. Julian Christopher

Two gay couples (Lucus/Matthew and Jonathan/Marcus) get together for a dinner party. They work together. They live in the same building. They are closeted. But when one ponders his resignation the others fear exposure of their hidden relationships. They cannot allow this to happen. They won’t allow this to happen. All hell breaks loose… literally.

For more information on Christopher’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange and his personal website.

MMF by David L. Kimple

When Dean, Jane, and Michael’s polyamorous relationship comes to an end, the triad is forced to deal with the consequences of love in a non-traditional relationship.

For scripts and licensing please visit Samuel French. For more information on Kimple’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange and his personal website.

Orange by Aditi Kapil

An adventure through Orange County told from the perspective of a girl on the autism spectrum. A play with illustrations.

For more information on Kapil’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange and her personal website.

Sweep by Georgina Escobar

Sweep is a femme spec-evo story that follows two sisters and hit women of the splintered worlds whose initial snafu with Adam & Eve catches up with them lifetimes later. Fighting for a last chance to reset humanity’s imperfect patterns, the women of Sweep hunt their targets from biblical times to modern-day in order to accelerate humanity’s evolution.

For more information on Escobar’s other plays please visit the New Play Exchange and her personal website.

Artist Profile: Kevin Ray Johnson

Name: Kevin Ray Johnson

Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

Residence: Brooklyn, New York

On Writing…

What is your earliest memory of writing?

Okay I have to admit something from the start. I was never that great of a student but I always did well on papers and in English class. So I would say my earliest memories go as far back as the 4th or 5th grade. I loved when we would get creative type writing assignments.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when I was 19 and I wanted to write something that chronicled my life while living with diabetes and I started writing it while in school. That play was called Life Inside an Open Kaije (Kaije is pronounced like Cage) and something about that made me realize that this wasn’t a one shot deal this is something I want to do forever.

Tell us about your writing process.

I generally want to develop the arc of the story. The beginning, middle and end and when that is done it’s all about fleshing out the characters as much as possible. Making them real and relatable and someone you want to invest in. Revisions and being objective are essential for a writer you should never ever feel your job is done and you should never be above taking criticism.

Tell us about The Unpredictable Times and Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire.

The Unpredictable Times is a piece I have been working on for well over ten years. It originally started off as a 10 minute that I wrote called “The Next Day” my last year in college. I grew up in Minnesota and it’s a coming of age drama based on five friends from Champlin, Minnesota. They come back home to Champlin for the summer after graduating college to be met by unresolved issues from the past that will challenge their childhood friendships now as adults. To me, I wrote it because I wanted a coming of age piece that anyone no matter what generation (millennial, gen x etc) can relate to when it comes to letting go, forgiving and growing up. I wanted the situation to be relatable while at the same time being something I know so well which is Minnesota. When you grow up in MN it’s like no other place and you truly no matter where you go bring a little bit of the Midwest with you.

Reginald: from Baltimore to Billionaire is a piece based on the first African American Billionaire Reginald F. Lewis. I want to start by saying that I wake up every day feeling like the luckiest man alive that I am allowed to write this story. I was working with a wonderful NYC actress named Lora Nicolas. We were at her place one day working on lines and she brought up through a conversation that her uncle is Reginald F. Lewis. My jaw dropped. She responded with “Oh wow you know who he is?” ha yea I did. She knew that I was a writer and that’s when the original idea came to write a play about Reginald.

It follows the life of Reginald Lewis from the time he is 13 up until the time he signs the Beatrice Deal which made him become the first black billionaire. You see him go through college and get accepted into Harvard, meet his wonderful lovely wife Loida Nicolas (who I had the pleasure of having dinner with not too long ago and is truly such an amazing and beautiful human being) to his law firm, creating TLC (The Lewis Company) and the Beatrice Deal.

When I spoke to Loida I remember saying to her that this isn’t a piece that I want to be told this is a piece that NEEDS to be told. We live in a time where “reality stars” are claiming to want to Make America Great Again. I feel there is truly something inspiring about seeing a man that looks like Reginald live in a time like the 50s and 60s and him having the mindset that this isn’t gonna stop me. I’m gonna keep going no matter what. I have lost many nights of sleep because of this play (not a bad thing at all) because I just sit up and read it and think that this is something that could inspire a lot of people while educating them on who the first really was.

The first reading took place August of 2016 and it featured Isaiah Johnson (Who played mister in the revival of The Color Purple and who will be starring in the upcoming tour of Hamilton) as Reginald F. Lewis with Lora Nicolas playing her Aunt Loida Nicolas-Lewis. There was such an amazing visual that I tell Lora about all the time. She was sitting there in the reading and her Aunt was sitting right in front of her with her eyes closed just listening to the play. It was just such an amazing visual that I will remember for the rest of my writing career.

What else are you working on now?

I have several projects. One is a play cycle called “Before it Got Unpredictable: Short Plays by Kevin Ray Johnson” which features three short plays I wrote. It was performed last June and was headlined by Remy Zaken (Original Thea in Spring Awakening on Broadway) and featured an amazing cast.

I also am in the beginning process of working on a One-Act play called Obsolete Classified which is one of the heavier pieces I have worked on ever. I am someone who is very passionate about the discussion of mental health and that no one should be afraid to admit that they are not okay. Obsolete Classified follows someone who is wrongfully put in suicide watch at a hospital for 4 days and how those 4 days didn’t help them but only made it worse.

Also what I talked about earlier, The Next Day, will be performed at The New York Theater Festival and will featured an amazing cast of two up and coming actors in Michael Coale Grey and Megan Albracht. Show dates are March 7th, 11th and 12th at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

What books/plays have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Marriage of Bette and Boo and This is our Youth as well as Othello and I know its cliché but I learned so much as a writer from Romeo and Juliet.

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On Acting…

Tell us about your process of preparing for a new role.

I read the script and then I ask myself how I want to take on this role from talking, expressions, mannerisms, to even the way I stand, are they likeable or unlikeable, how do I relate, can I relate and so on. I am not someone who tries to completely go against the grain from what the writer was wanting to get across but I still want to make it my own. When it comes to musicals and if it’s a well known show I try not to listen to the soundtrack. I feel as actors the one thing we should always do is put 100 percent trust in our directors so if we are able to do that then the performance will show.

What is your dream role? What do you feel you would bring to it?

Oh wow. This is a tough one. Musicals I am gonna say Jake in Sideshow. Plays would definitely be Chad Deity in the Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and for Shakespeare I would say Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Othello in Othello.

For all four roles, I feel I would bring being able to relate and understand them. All four characters (even Tybalt) you can feel sympathy for and even if you don’t agree with how they go about things there truly is a reason why they are and in their own mind they believe what they are doing is right. I find that fascinating as an artist.

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On a life in the theatre…

What have been the defining moments in your career as a theatre artist?

Making my Off Broadway debut in The Love Note in 2014, having the honor of playing the role of Dr. Madden/ Dr. Fine in Next to Normal on 4 different occasions, becoming a board member at Rise Above Performing Arts in Florida led by Jacob Ruscoe because being around kids who love theatre is always a gift in itself and most recently performing in Guys and Dolls at The Asolo Repertory Theatre because the entire time I truly didn’t feel worthy. Josh Rhodes is truly one of the greatest directors I truly feel in the entire world and working with him truly was a defining moment in my career.

Who has had the biggest impact on your journey so far? Do you have any mentors or heroes in the theatre?

My mother for her support and for believing in me.

Molly Donnelly, my voice teacher in college who truly was the only one I felt believed in me when even I didn’t believe in me.

Isaiah Johnson and Jessica Frances Dukes for being the epitome of what a black artist should be and two people I truly look up to on and off the stage.

A wonderful artist named Michael Kevin Callahan who was my dance captain for Guys and Dolls at Asolo Repertory Theatre. He truly deserves all the amazing things coming his way. One of the most talented dancers I have ever seen in my entire life and with all that I can truly say one of the kindest beautiful spirits I have ever encountered.

My fiancé Rachael for truly being my rock and making me see things from a different point of view. I truly don’t know what I would do without her.

What advice do you have for aspiring theatre artists?

Believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you started. We all get that little negative voice in our head. The sooner you have the strength to block it out the sooner you will become the best performer you can be. Stay in your lane and if things come faster to people around you than it does to you it doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented so don’t give up. Everyone I feel has the ability and capability to make it in this amazing business. The reason why people don’t is because they are not able to stick it out through the tough times especially when it comes to “not being cast” or “being overlooked.” Stick it out. You can do it.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I am the biggest wrestling fan and probably Nirvana’s number one fan but lol that’s a story for another day.

***For more on Kevin Ray Johnson, see:

 

Learning How to Leverage Leadership at #LTCNewYorkCity

On the second day of the Latina/o Theatre Commons New York City Regional Convening (#LTCNewYorkCity), attendees chose between three tracks: aesthetics, identity, and leadership. While I recognized the value in each track, I chose leadership. I wanted to learn more about how to become a stronger leader and hear more about other arts leaders’ experiences in their respective communities. In recent years, I’ve come into more leadership roles, but, as expected, I’m not always sure how to best position myself and negotiate my privileges in different spaces. So what did I learn on the leadership track at #LTCNewYorkCity?

The leadership track took place in Teatro SEA’s intimate theatre space at The Clemente in the Lower East Side. The panel consisted of Jacob Padrón (Artistic Director of The Sol Project), Stephanie Ybarra (Director of Special Artistic Projects at The Public Theater), Nikko Kimzin (NYC-based actor and arts entrepreneur), and Sharifa Johka (FAIR Experience Manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

After everyone in the theatre introduced themselves, Padrón led us in a popcorn brainstorming session centered on the word “leadership.”

Inspirational, visionary, authenticity, risk taker, driven, political, listener, innovator, strategist, accountable, colleague, conviction, impact, empathy, shared, ingenuity, learner, fearless, courageous, inclusive, not crazy, wholesome/whole, communicator, flexible, all-embracing, curiosity, charismatic, aware, reflective, honest, respectful, passionate.

While our group popcorn session certainly tested Padrón and Kimzin’s quick spelling (and we learned that Noe Montez placed 19th in the National Spelling Bee), it was generative to hear what other theatre artists associate with leadership.

Next, Padrón asked panelists Ybarra and Johka what being an agent of change means to them. How do they use leadership to tell the types of stories they want to tell? How do they leverage leadership to affect change?

Ybarra encouraged us to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of leader do you want to be?
  • What kind of producer do you want to be?
  • Which decision most aligns with my values?

Essentially, each leader needs their own personal mission, vision, and values that drive forward their work. In addition, Ybarra prioritizes hiring people who share her values and can take care of the people in the room.

Johka doesn’t think about the word “leadership.” In the beginning, she thought that everyone wanted to be a leader and then realized that it is a politic. As a person of color in a primarily White institution, her leadership style is to hold the door open and help situate people in the organization who can become allies later on.

Both Ybarra and Johka stressed the importance of cultivating relationships with allies, finding peer groups, and identifying collaborators within and outside of your institution.

The next portion of the leadership track was spent in small groups discussing what leadership means to us. Each group was tasked with creating a mission statement, finishing the following prompt: “An agent of change in the American theatre is _____________.”

  • Group 1: An agent of change in the American theatre understands their power and privilege and uses that purpose to build resources, opportunity, and equity to dismantle white supremacy, isolation, and ignorance by actively organizing and building alliances that come together around core values.
  • Group 2: As agents of change, our mission is to identify the strengths and areas of growth needed in myself in order to actively inspire and challenge the American Theatre to grow and take active responsibility in changing the landscape. Let’s make sure there’s room at the table for those need to be heard and bandwidth to support it.
  • Group 3: An agent of change in the Theatre of the Americas mindfully creates a home with the community where everyone is welcome and able to define their own agency and to make art that reflects, challenges, and helps shape the values and narratives of their community.
  • Group 4: Being an agent of change in the American theatre means localizing, sharing leadership (past, present and future), and being the resource.

The conversation then shifted to mentorship. While it was beneficial to hear others comment on their relationships as mentees and mentors, perhaps the most productive portion of the session was the one-on-one mentorship speed-dating. In pairs, we discussed our specific mentorship style. Since my partner was also a professor, we discussed the balance between teaching and mentoring and how those lines can become blurred based on the types of courses we teach.

While the leadership track certainly offered its fair share of constructive takeaways, I find that LTC events are best understood by looking at the whole. Leadership was on display throughout the weekend. In addition to Jacob Padrón, Rebecca Martínez and David Mendizábal flexed their leadership muscles time and time again, leading by example and showing attendees what dynamic leadership looks like in real time. The artistic collective of The Sol Project was launching their ambitious initiative the same weekend (congrats to Hilary Bettis and the creative team of Alligator!). LTC Producer Abigail Vega continues to amaze and inspire me to become a better leader.

To conclude, there is no conclusion. Becoming a stronger leader is a never-ending process. I still have much to learn and am thankful for events such as #LTCNewYorkCity that give me a crash-course into different ways to become a more effective arts leader.

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From PARTY PEOPLE to INTO THE WOODS

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the ambitious and necessary Party People by UNIVERSES at The Public Theater in New York City. Weaving oral histories of members of the Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords Party with the contemporary sociopolitical climate, Party People is an incredibly powerful multi-sensory and genre-bending performance that left me inspired (Clips here, here, and here). Come to find out, my day was teeming with inspiration, at times from the unlikeliest of places. When I left the theatre, I met with playwright Maria Alexandria Beech on Lafayette St. She had just seen The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the new documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical that closed after only 16 performances and has since become an iconic Broadway musical. While I was jacked up about Party People, our conversation quickly went to Sondheim (as can happen with two musical theatre nerds). “I love Sondheim. I do,” I confessed to Alex. This shouldn’t have been news, but I felt the need to tell my Twitter bestie (who I was just meeting in person for the first time!)… Sondheim inspires me (and so does Alex).

So while my brain has been in theatre overload this week, still living in the powerful performances of Party People and Vietgone, I was also looking forward to seeing Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). I was looking to be inspired in a different way.

Full disclosure: I’m an Into the Woods junkie. It’s not my favorite Sondheim show; I’m not even sure it would be in my top 5, but I love it. Whether it’s both cast recordings, the filmed Broadway version, the movie, or Fiasco Theater’s masterfully stripped-down Off-Broadway revival, I’ve enjoyed every iteration of the show that I’ve come across. So when TUTS announced their season with Into the Woods filling the slot usually reserved for holiday-themed shows, I marked it on my calendar as a must-see in the Houston theatre season.

While I’ve never been one to formally review theatre, I do want to give some takeaways from TUTS’s top-notch production of Into the Woods.

  • Nearly 30 years after it first opened, there are no surprises with Into the Woods. The first act gives us the happily-ever-after of our famed fairytale characters and our lead duo—The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Act two shows us what happens after the happily-ever-after. In short, happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. At least not as we know it. I must confess: my interest in the show begins to peak once Sondheim begins maiming and killing off characters. I’ve always enjoyed a dark musical and act two is indeed dark.
  • The Baker’s Wife’s Shoes. Confession. Anytime the superb Stephanie Gibson was on stage, I simply could not take my eyes away from her shoes. I couldn’t. When she tried to give Cinderella those blue and yellow shoes, I was a little jealous that she wasn’t gifting them to me. Not that I had a gold slipper or anything, but I digress. All of this is to say that the design team knocked it out of the park. Not only were Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes well-realized across the board, but Kevin Depinet’s scenic design was lush, filling Sarofim Hall in ways I’ve seldom seen. Even so, I had a hard time paying attention to the show whenever the actors were near the lip of the stage because I was afraid they would slide right into the orchestra pit. While the design choice to have the set extend into the pit was visually appealing, it took me out of the show more often than not.
  • Emily Skinner as the Witch. I’ll be honest, it took me some time to warm up to Skinner. And this isn’t entirely Skinner’s fault. One of the issues with iconic characters is that audiences inevitably will associate them with the actor who created the role. In this case, I find it impossible to think of Into the Woods and not think of Bernadette Peters. Once I forgot about Peters, I was able to live in Skinner’s world. In many ways, Skinner breaks the mold for the Witch and the opening of “Last Midnight” is just what I needed last night.
  • By this point Into the Woods has surely been produced every conceivable way, but Robert Longbottom’s direction took the show to new places at times (for me, at least). The show began with a bare stage, save for a costume rack and actors dressed in simple black clothes. They ran to the rack, grabbed their costumes, and the show began. Interesting. Unfortunately, except for a few moments (such as when Cinderella gets her ball gown), this concept wasn’t revisited until the show’s finale. After killing the giant, The Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red come out in contemporary black clothes. They now seem to be reflecting on not only the story they are in, but the story they have just told. During “Children Will Listen,” the adult actors enter dressed in black while child actors accompany them dressed in miniature versions of the iconic adult costumes. At first, I questioned this choice, but by the end of the song, it put a smile on my face. If anything, I thought it was a beautiful touch to give these kids an opportunity to perform in a professional production of Into the Woods.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in "Party People" by UNIVERSES

Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in “Party People” by UNIVERSES

Scholars: Up for Multiple Roles in the Movement

Though the United States is quickly approaching a Latinx majority (2044 is the projected year), Latinx theatre remains largely invisible despite the presence of some high-profile artists—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Karen Zacarías, Melinda Lopez—and a robust national movement spearheaded by the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC). One place it’s increasingly visible, though, is among scholars, who have been welcomed and woven into the fabric of the LTC. Why are scholars suddenly being so thoroughly taken into the fold now? Where have they been all these years? And might they have a role in increasing the wider visibility of a movement that’s gained increased coherence and purpose in recent years?

Scholarship around Latino theatre—or teatro, as it’s commonly known in the movement—traces its origins to Jorge Huerta, who received his doctorate in 1974, becoming not only the first Chicano with a Ph.D in theatre but also the first person to formally study Latino theatre. By the turn of the 21st century, enough scholars had done graduate work in Latino theatre and performance that Irma Mayorga, assistant professor of theatre at Dartmouth College, and Ramón Rivera-Servera, associate professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, were able to found the Latina/o Focus Group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Still, there haven’t been many scholars studying teatro. That began to change in 2013, when the LTC emerged with a national convening at Emerson College in Boston. The newly formed LTC steering committee met with Latino theatremakers from a diverse array of artistic disciplines, regions, career stages, genders, and sexual orientations. In partnership with HowlRound, the LTC formed to create, in its official words, a “national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latina/o performance making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship.”

Continue reading at American Theatre Magazine.

Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.

Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).

Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

Does Carnegie Vanguard’s HOLY DAY go too far for high school theatre?

Don’t come to Carnegie Vanguard High School’s UIL One-Act Play (OAP) production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell expecting laughs. This isn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Over the River and Through the Woods, or The 39 Steps. If you want to see something familiar, perhaps The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the umpteenth time, then I am sure there will be a production around the corner. There are three productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone next week at Texas’s UIL One-Act Play Competition in Austin where Carnegie Vanguard will compete for the 6A State Championship with its highly original production of Holy Day.

If you are looking for professional-grade theatre that is brave, raw, and real, then Holy Day will deliver. Holy Day received its world premiere in 2001 at the State Theatre Company in South Australia. Since then, the play has received few productions, making this a powerfully fresh choice for a Texas high school theatre competition. In 2014, Carnegie Vanguard won the 5A UIL OAP state competition with When the Rain Stops Falling, another Andrew Bovell title.

Holy Day begins with two men and a mute boy entering a traveler’s inn. The minister’s wife appears—her husband has died, the church has burned to the ground, and her baby has been stolen, supposedly by Aboriginal peoples. The remaining 40 minute cutting (per UIL OAP rules) entangles greed and survival between the four leading players: the inn-keeper Nora, the drunken nomad Goundry, the minister’s wife Elizabeth, and the Aboriginal woman Linda. All four actors deliver performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a high school stage. Indeed, as the performances in Holy Day demonstrate, to call Carnegie Vanguard “high school theatre,” which often comes with a connotation of “amateur,” would be to undermine it.

Holy Day explores colonialism, brutality, deceit, murder, and racism on the 19th century Australian frontier, on the borderlands of white and black, of frontier life and indigenous life. While Carnegie Vanguard’s production design is beautiful, with professional-looking projections on a jagged-edged tableau, this is indeed a story about the ugly side of life on the frontier and the realities of colonialism.

Aside from the gorgeous projections, Holy Day features a soundscape of rain, thunder, and didgeridoos. The bare set—save a tree and a table—is filled with a shadowy vastness, a metaphor for the harsh expanse of the Australian outback and the secrets that lie in the shadows of Carnegie Vanguard’s powerful Holy Day. As the projections show, life on the frontier is in a constant state of motion that involves violent collisions amidst a world of heightened naturalism. The vast darkness allows the spectator to focus on Bovell’s words and the explosive performances that give them life. Each character is nuanced and flawed in some way. No one is left unscathed.

As an Australian Gothic play, Holy Day often shows the ugly side of humanity by rendering a frighteningly real look at the effects of colonialism in Australia. The play offers a glimpse into the atrocities of colonialism against the Aboriginal population in Australia where, much like in the United States, European settlers pushed indigenous peoples off their lands and, in many cases, murdered them. As Holy Day shows, children were taken by settlers to be raised as Christians, only to become the servants to white settlers and the victims of physical abuse. As in the United States, these histories are not taught across the curriculum in Australia, making Holy Day a bold choice for Carnegie Vanguard to start a dialogue through theater.

Yet, as anyone who has been following Carnegie Vanguard’s road to the UIL OAP State Finals has observed, the dialogue has instead centered on unfounded complaints from opposing schools that the production is “offensive.” People are asking “What is too far for high school theatre?” and “How edgy should high school theatre be?” In fact, many of the people weighing in against Holy Day have admittedly not seen this production nor read the play script. I’m looking at you, Todd Starnes, who penned an opinion piece, “School play depicts rape, filthy language and public urination,” for Fox News. Simply put, if you haven’t seen or read the play then you have no right to be offended.

Would classics such as Carousel not go “too far” if they were directed with a heavy hand to foreground the domestic violence inflicted on Julie Jordan? Could this not be potentially traumatizing to an audience member who has experienced domestic violence? Is it acceptable to sing racist lyrics in West Side Story while your high school’s students of color are experiencing overt and subtle racism on a daily basis. Examples such as these are innumerable.

Let me break Holy Day down from my perspective of having seen the production three times.

Some have complained about the language in the play. Yes, Holy Day includes a few profanities—“bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard”—but this language is used to accurately capture the historical moment that Holy Day portrays. Sure, these words might be offensive to some in 2016, but have you walked down the halls of a high school in the last 20 years? Have you seen a high school play outside of the bubble you live in? Have you seen a PG-13 movie recently? Have you read a John Green young adult novel recently?

One of Todd Starnes’ chief complaints is the depiction of sex and rape in Holy Day, which I will add, never happen on-stage. Yes, we hear the screams of both characters once they are off-stage, but we never see it (many of the complaints have made it sound like these rape scenes occur on-stage). Of course, rape and sexual violence are difficult topics, but if we can’t be having these conversations in theatre then where can we have them? Is theatre not supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations and get people talking? We do a disservice to our students to ignore the topic of rape. As nearly every statistic reveals, 1-in-4 women in college are the victim of rape or sexual assault. The numbers are staggering by any standard. Sexual assault is very real and, like it or not, a lived reality of high school aged-students, both male and female.

Others are upset that a character in Holy Day urinates and that another female character washes her private parts. The fact that I saw this production 3 times and neither of these things ever stood out to me is significant. The reason is simple; Holy Day is not a play about either of these things. They are quick glimpses that add nuances to each character. Even so, since when is urinating away from the audience upstage offensive? People have been saying that the actor “drops his pants.” Yes, he drops his pants and is wearing long johns. Do I need to recount every high school play I have seen with a boy in long johns or a girl in a slip?

So, does Holy Day go too far? Is it too edgy? My answer is a resounding “no.”

The play met the community standards. The principal approved it. Houston ISD approved it and issued a statement supporting the production. The Carnegie Vanguard parents have unwaveringly supported the show. The contest managers and adjudicators of six rounds advanced the play to the next round, often in the first place slot. Not to mention that there have been copious amounts of warnings before all rounds of UIL OAP competition. There were printed warnings in the program and on the doors. And, at nearly every round, the contest manager issued a warning before the play, reminding the audience that the play was approved by the principal. In all instances, warnings reiterated that the plays competing met their community standards and may not be acceptable for all audiences.

So what is the problem? The fact that complaints have nearly entirely come from parents associated with opposing schools whose work was not to Carnegie Vanguard’s level is revealing. Rather than publically speak against the bold work of these students, why not make a vow to improve your own work? Help your students hone their craft during the summer. Find opportunities for self-growth. Make the best use of your professional development funds. Don’t have professional development funds? Fundraise and make it happen. Pick an exciting and new play that showcases your cast’s talents. Be bold with your design. Be creative. Don’t use projections for the sake of simply using projections. Make sure your play’s cutting is dramaturgically sound.

I urge anyone who can to see Carnegie Vanguard’s Holy Day—Friday, May 20 in Houston and Wednesday, May 25 in Austin. It isn’t often you can see high school professional theatre like this.


Carnegie Vanguard will be performing Holy Day at the world-renowned Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. Please go here to donate to this life-changing opportunity for these students!

Holy Day 2