SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., − It’s hard to believe that the Portland, Oregon of today—realistically lampooned for its over-the-top latté liberalism and sanctimonious political correctness in TV’s “Portlandia”—was once part of a state where towns felt free to legally ban blacks from living within their boundaries. Worse, blacks currently residing in these jurisdictions at that time were driven from their homes and banished forever from returning.
This 19th century blot on American justice, known collectively as the “exclusionary laws,” in part provided the inspiration for Christina Anderson’s new play, “The Ashes Under Gait City.” Currently being staged as part of this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Ms. Anderson’s play was originally commissioned by the Portland Playhouse.
In “Ashes,” we learn up front that in the late 1800s, after a disastrous fire that burned it to the ground, Gait City—a fictional Oregon locale—rebuilt itself anew. But the city was careful to make sure that any black residents of Gait City who survived the fire were prohibited from reclaiming or rebuilding their old homes. Any who attempted to do so would be driven out.
Fast-forwarding to our own time, we meet a charismatic, black “Internet guru” who goes by the handle of “Simone the Believer” (Daphne Gaines). She’s discussing Gait City’s ancient history via Skype with D (Kaliswa Brewster), one of her more avid online followers.
Inspired by her extensive research on the topic, Simone decides that her great mission in life will involve relocating to Gait City herself. Her aim: to found a new movement that will somehow, miraculously, encourage black Americans with like beliefs to follow her there and reclaim the place and the heritage they had once been historically denied as the Americas’ original “disappeareds.”* Enlisting a somewhat astonished D to quit her job and follow her there, Simone lights out for the territories to deliver what she’s promised.
Eventually obtaining lodging in the spacious but empty home of Felicia (Shauna Miles)—a fulltime cynic and one of Gait City’s small number of current black residents living in a rundown and neglected city ghetto—Simone and D haphazardly collect a small band of fellow “believers” to help promote and publicize their somewhat nebulous plan. These include Jeremiah (Biko Eisen-Martin), a genial, easygoing young man who works in a local coffee house but whose father was a black militant; Clay (Willie C. Carpenter), a mailman who’s recently arrived in Gait City; and, eventually, Felicia herself.
It’s at this point that events become more complicated than anticipated. Simone proves, at times, to be an imperfect guru. D’s and Jeremiah’s attention is momentarily diverted by the intensity of their developing love affair. And the older Felicia and Clay have reservations about getting too much in the face of Gait City’s controlling traditionalists who still possess a great deal of coercive power over people they don’t like.
A play that’s not what you think
Given the bare plot outlines of “Gait City,” one might expect to be seeing a fairly conventional, race-based play, predictably pointing a finger at all the usual suspects. But, happily and before you know what’s happening, the playwright neatly transcends the conventions of the core topic by also questioning the nature of cults and cult leaders as well as the need to constantly re-evaluate traditions and so-called conventional wisdom.
The play also explores the disproportionate influence of generally nameless, unseen elites who will only allow so much latitude on the part of those they have chosen to rule—a criticism that can be extended to our own oligarch- and establishment-controlled Federal government and to many state and local governments as well.
Ms. Anderson further spices up the proceedings with elements derived from scary, well-known short fiction tales like Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Ones Who Walk Away from Omela” (whose influence she acknowledges) and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery;” plus a brief chase scene very possibly inspired by the 1999 indie film “The Blair Witch Project” whose action, perhaps coincidentally, took place not far across the river from Shepherdstown.
What we wind up with is an intriguing and thought-provoking drama whose global impact is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. Ostensibly a play about race, identity, and societal condescension toward designated minorities, “Gait City” blossoms into a multi-layered examination of celebrity, leadership, religious conviction, cult fellowship and followership, and the persistence of time-honored laws, rules and traditions that have long ago lost any contemporary meaning or relevance.
“Gait City” also examines, though somewhat subtly, the pluses and minuses of 24/7 Internet-based news, information, photos, videos, blogs and above all, instant messaging and social networking. Transitions between scenes in this play are signaled by means of projected video, audio and text, much in the way individuals use their iPhone and Android devices today.
The electronic element of this play is integral to both its plot and its intellectual content. As we see around our troubled world today, instant communication, video and social networking has become a key tool in overriding governmental censorship, while at the same time in clever hands these same means of communication can also be exploited to create false realities.
Additionally, when intercepted, electronic communications can be subverted and willfully misinterpreted, leading to unforeseen and at times catastrophic outcomes as well as opportunistic solutions. All these and more become integral to “Gait City’s” spiraling intellectual reach. The near-seamless integration of these high-tech elements into the fabric of the play is at once innovative and masterful.
“Gait City’s” cast and crew
As always, however, a great script needs great actors to bring it to life. As we’ve come to expect each year at CATF, the talent is there and, under the deft direction of Lucie Tiberghien, the audience is quickly drawn into the very midst of Simone’s growing cult.
As “Internet guru” and cult leader Simone the Believer, Daphne Gaines turns in a masterful and multi-layered performance, drawing the audience in to her radiant aura of peace, love and simple justice just as she attracts her followers. But slowly, subtly, Ms. Gaines reveals the steel behind her character’s gracious, smiling mask including the ability to control and, at times, adapt to people and events, turning them in her favor even when things don’t go according to script.
Ms. Gaines quietly, almost invisibly articulates the underlying fanaticism and unreality of Simone, the twin cores that ground her ability to attract her followers by addressing what’s deep within them, which she then can use as needed to control their thoughts and actions.
As the metaphorical curtain goes down on this play, we remain uncertain as to whether Simone is a force for good or a force for ill. On one level, she seems to have no clue as to what kind of fate she is tempting. But on another level, she likely does but does not care. There’s no real answer to all the questions here, and it’s a tribute to Ms. Gaines’ abilities that Simone remains a charismatic enigma from beginning to end.
The rest of the cast revolves like a collective satellite around the magnetic power of Simone the Believer. Yet the all manage to retain their own distinct individuality even in followership.
As Simone’s chief follower, D, Kaliswa Brewster gives a vigorous, generous and at times understated performance as she moves from career woman to cult follower. D is persuaded to be a follower, yes. But she’s still enough of a businesswoman to assert her role to others as Simone’s follower-in-chief. She’s also cheeky enough to divert herself with Jeremiah who briefly becomes her intense passion—until Simone steps in to control the situation.
Shauna Miles’ Felicia is unique among this play’s characters in that she’s a born skeptic and cynic. Realistic about life almost to a fault, Ms. Miles’ character refuses to take anything or anyone, even Simone, at face value and tends to ground the group in rational thought whenever they need to make a decision.
On the flip side is Willie C. Carpenter’s Clay, an older gent who is so naturally kind and self-effacing that he raises Felicia’s hackles every time he pays her a compliment.
Clay is a lonely guy, but has been given hope, online, by Simone. Astonished to see her in the same town, he’s drawn to her magnetic power, yet still retains enough of the sweetness of his character to warn both she and his new friends to avoid tempting fate lest they all be damaged by it.
Jeremiah, as portrayed by Biko Eisen-Martin is in his own way as genial and gracious as Clay. But he’s younger, more impressionable, and clearly carries his dead father’s radical genes inside. He rarely seems to fully grasp what’s going on in background, due at least in part to his intense but momentary passion for D.
But as Mr. Eisen-Martin develops his character, you can see dad’s radical genes begin to manifest as Jeremiah becomes more determined to reclaim what he believes to be his heritage.
Luciana Stecconi’s set design is spare but efficient, highlighted above by a pair of multi-tiered projection screens that carry all those messages, videos, and transitions, acting at times like a Greek chorus of electrons as they chatter this play irresistibly forward.
“The Ashes Under Gait City” is at once a thoughtful, refreshing, and well-paced life parable and think piece. We highly recommend it.
Ratings: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)
Contains some explicit language and brief violence.
*“Disappeareds.” Individuals who disappeared and were never heard from again under Argentina’s notorious military dictatorship in the 1980s.
“The Ashes Under Gait City” by Christina Anderson will be performed in repertory through August 3, 2014 at CATF. Consult the information below for festival particulars and links.
Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is taken from CATF press material:
Matinee and evening performances are held Wednesday – Sunday throughout the Festival at a variety of times and venues. Single ticket prices to the 2014 repertory are $59. Four-show and five-show subscription discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $100-$240. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 & under, and West Virginia residents.
Performance tickets can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting www.catf.org/boxoffice.
For the official schedule, visit http://catf.org/schedule/
Complete season information – including playwright bios, promotional images and headshots, schedule, past production photos, videos, and ticketing – is available at www.catf.org. Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Getting there: It all depends on where you life. Marylanders and DC denizens will likely head out to Shepherdstown via the Beltway, I-270, I-70 plus a few turns on local roads in the general vicinity of Hagerstown before crossing the Potomac. All plays will be staged at venues not far from the bridge crossing.
Virginia residents will likely head out via the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to the VA-7 Leesburg bypass and then to VA-WV-9 to the Shepherdstown turnoff. But other routes may also work.
Check the CATF web site for further details, or program your GPS for the theater location you need. Or visit CATF’s “Getting There” info at http://catf.org/map-a-directions/.
Dining and lodging: If you plan on getting the ticket package for the entire Festival, call now and check the CATF general website above for dining and lodging suggestions. NOTE: Shepherdstown has a surprising number of first-rate restaurants, but they tend to get jammed during the Festival. Reservations are HIGHLY suggested.