Tragedy can make us feel isolated and alone, but it can also unite us, reinforcing existing relationships and forging new bonds. That's the case in regional theater right now, as PlayMakers Repertory Company, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Black Ops Theatre Company, and Kenan Theatre Company prepare to stage After Orlando, an international artistic response to the Pulse nightclub massacre last June.
On Monday, artists from all three groups will direct and act in a staged reading of twenty plays, each only two to four minutes long, which examine the shootings and their aftermath from a broad spectrum of viewpoints.
"The great thing about making theater is that it's community. We come together to do these things," says Blair Baker, cofounder of New York's Missing Bolts Productions, which initiated the project in July with the theater alliance NoPassport.
Initially, the two companies solicited work from playwrights in the hope of amassing some twenty-five plays for staged readings in New York and Washington, D.C. But as word spread through the theater community, the project took on a life of its own. Seventy-eight playwrights from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Uganda, and Australia have now contributed scripts. Due to its length, only one public performance of the complete text has been produced: an eleven-hour marathon at a London festival last month. But by the end of next January, sections of the work will have been staged in sixty-nine readings around the world.
Vivienne Benesch has been looking for chances to collaborate with other theater companies and cultural institutions in the area since arriving last January to became PlayMakers Rep's new artistic director. Though several larger, longer-term projects are in negotiation, After Orlando gives PlayMakers "an immediate way to respond and stand in solidarity with other companies in the Triangle," Benesch says. "That seems incredibly important in this moment."
Benesch had already tapped JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, artistic director of Black Ops, as assistant director for PlayMakers' September production of Detroit '67. "I'm a big fan of JaMeeka," Benesch says. "She has a lot to say politically and artistically." Benesch has similar high regard for the political, immersive, and experimental approach that Little Green Pig brings to its work. "They're a lot of people's favorite small company in the region," she says.
The company's artistic director, Jaybird O'Berski, sees After Orlando as a must-do project because of the way company members had been affected, directly and indirectly, by the Orlando shootings. "And in the climate of fear and loathing that's only been exacerbated in the last week, people need to feel a sense of safety, a communal warmth," O'Berski says. The compiled texts remind him of Suzan Lori-Parks's 365 Days/365 Plays project: "They're very impressionistic and elliptical; they feel very gut-level, very visceral."
At first, Holloway-Burrell was concerned about the amount of time that had passed since the June tragedy. But, noting the more recent police-related shootings of Philando Castile and Keith Lamont Scott, she concluded that "time never passes for gun violence in America."
Holloway-Burrell is also struck by an underlying concern of invisibility she finds throughout the scripts. "You get the feeling these characters are very aware of their lack of visibility," she says. "It's an unseen population; the only time we tend to see them is when something bad happens. There's this want, this need to be recognized as humans, on a Tuesday, a Wednesday, and not just when tragedy strikes."
Jacqueline Lawton, the only local playwright included in the project, is a dramaturg for PlayMakers Rep and a professor in UNC's Department of Dramatic Art. Holloway-Burrell, who will direct her work, To Be Alive, says Lawton is "someone you want to mirror. She's all about arts activism and equity."
In Lawton's script, Laith, a young man from Syria, must confront the similarities between himself and the Pulse gunman, Omar Seddique Mateen. "He's living amid the hyper yet unfounded fear that Syrian refugees are ISIS in disguise," Lawton notes. "He's Muslim and gay, and he finds out that the attacker was also Muslim and, rumor has it, a closeted homosexual." The realization forces Laith to confront his own identity.
The views represented in the other nineteen texts include Ian Rowlands and Korde Tuttle's ecstatic celebrations of dance and sensual release in a place many in the Orlando gay Latinx community regarded as sanctuary. There's also Katie Pearl's poignant Today Is a Good Day, based on lines from the obituaries of the forty-nine victims. Elsewhere, there is humor, anger, and wonder in works that look in on two privileged Brits in Kabul, a Florida senator, a mother and daughter in a grocery store, and a Latino whose shot of mescal, spilled "for the homies who can't be here," conjures a window into the past.
"All these different ways to experience this tragedy just shakes you to your core," says Zac Kline, cofounder of Missing Bolts. "This is how voices don't just fade away. It's how we say no, we're not going to let horrible stuff keep happening."
Jerry Ruiz, associate artistic director of PlayMakers, hopes the free staging helps foster the creation of safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. "It's a way to show our alliance, and put actions behind our words of support," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Elegy for Orlando."