Forget follies and farces. Local college and university theaters are tackling tougher issues this season. From racism and homophobia to bullying and social pressures, Blue Ridge Community College, Warren Wilson College and UNC Asheville are all staging hard-hitting plays in hopes of sparking thoughtful dialogue.
Blue Ridge Community College
For Dan Turpin, a second-year student at the Flat Rock-based school, the most challenging part of this season’s production is throwing around hateful slurs — sometimes even shouting them — onstage.
“It’s hard to not get angry at yourself,” he says.
The play in question is The Laramie Project, which explores the murder of Matthew Shepard, a real-life gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., and the reactions to his death. Although homophobia led to Shepard’s murder, the script by Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project, mostly focuses on bullying and its consequences.
“The play is not so much about gay people as it is about ‘Let’s not beat up and kill people,’” says director Jennifer Treadway, a member of the school’s drama faculty.
This, she believes, should make the message easier to swallow. The issue of bullying, especially among younger people, is pertinent today, she notes, explaining, “All the horrible bullying articles I’ve been reading inspired me.”
While the play was in rehearsal, Treadway learned about an incident last month at the University of Mississippi, where a group of football players in the audience cruelly heckled and mocked the actors performing Laramie. “I would have been unprepared for that, but now that this has happened, we’re having the conversation about what we would do,” says Treadway. “Do we want to consult with our local security? Do we want to make sure college officials are present at every performance?”
Blue Ridge is the first non-urban college to stage the play, says Turpin, but he hopes audiences will approach it with open minds. “Usually small Southern towns are labeled as ‘hick towns’ that are racist and homophobic,” he says. “But [Hendersonville] is like the suburbs of Asheville, so we have this huge liberal influence among all this conservatism. We don’t fit the stereotype.”
The drama department is partnering with local progressive churches and a pair of gay rights organizations, PFLAG and Youth Outright, to host a talkback after the final performance. The discussion will cover tolerance, anti-bullying and ways to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Turpin, who plays the Rev. Fred Phelps, says that Westboro Baptist Church likes to send someone to protest every show, “so we might look forward to that.”
The Laramie Project runs Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 20-23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m., followed by a talkback. $5 for all students/$7 general admission. blueridge.edu.
Drama professor Rob Bowen doesn’t often direct plays at the school, but when he does, he chooses topics he’s passionate about.
The massacre of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary last year inspired Bowen to propose columbinus by Stephen Karam, P.J. Paparelli and others as this season’s production. The play chronicles the series of events leading up to the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting, in which two students killed and injured dozens of people. According to the playwrights, “columbinus” (not capitalized) means “dove-like” in Latin. To Bowen, it evokes the healing that has happened in the Colorado town where the shooting took place.
“This is the kind of theater more universities need to be doing, because it [encourages] conversations,” he maintains. “It’s thought-provoking; it’s not just shock value. It can inspire ideas, maybe solutions. At a university, it’s important to involve the audience in the production, to challenge them.”
Even though mass shootings have become more common, it’s often forgotten that every community is susceptible to them, says Bowen. “We want to get through the mythology to find out who these people were,” he explains. “We tend to forget that they were just kids, too. Kids can do this, especially nowadays.”
Given the play’s serious nature, he maintains, it’s important to take extra care to ensure the emotional well-being of audience and actors alike. “We’ve done so much research, and the play is so intense,” says Bowen. “As a company, we have to look out for each other, put these characters away and not take them home with us. We also have counselors, in case it becomes too powerful for people and they need someone to talk to.”
Talkbacks after every performance will focus on lessons learned from the Columbine tragedy and how such killing sprees can be prevented in the future.
“There were opportunities to stop this, and people just weren’t paying attention,” notes Bowen. “Every time, a person who is planning something this complex will leak it to somebody, and somebody just needs to be listening.”
See columbinus Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 21-23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m. $5 students/$8 faculty and staff /$10 general public. drama.unca.edu/theatre-unca.
Warren Wilson College
For the first time, Warren Wilson’s theater department is staging not one but two plays this fall, over two weekends. More significantly, both works presented by the predominantly white school in Swannanoa deal with racial issues.
Director Candace Taylor says she chose Spinning Into Butter, about a racial incident at a small liberal arts college, because it resonates with an incident at Warren Wilson last fall. According to an email sent out by the dean of students, a threat and a racial slur were written on an African-American student’s residence hall door.
Sophomore Sophie Yates, who plays the dean of students, sees other similarities between the college depicted by playwright Rebecca Gilman and Warren Wilson. “It’s the same kind of setting and the same type of people,” she points out. “How we tend to think of ourselves and how we actually are is very similar to the play.”
The college’s second production this fall is Flyin’ West, which will feature the theater’s first-ever all-black cast. “It wasn’t until last year that I looked around and saw that we had enough students to make that happen,” says Taylor.
Author Pearl Cleage’s play is set in 1898 in Nicodemus, Kan., where many African-Americans settled after the Civil War.
“I think it’s important to know every kind of American history there is,” Taylor explains. “I know when I first heard of Flyin’ West, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a part of African-American history I didn’t know much about.’ I didn’t know there were any black towns in the West in the 1800s. That part of history, at least when I was going to school, was never included. I had no idea there were black women pioneers building this country on the Great Plains. To me, that’s a reason to do it.”
Besides shining some light on a story that isn’t typically included in textbooks, Flyin’ West also deals with racism among African-Americans, specifically how lighter complexions are favored over darker coloring.
The two plays’ casts have been rehearsing on alternate nights, and the works will be performed the same way, meaning the set will change nightly. Taylor opted to direct two plays because both speak to the theme of bias. “The main benefit of doing them back to back is that it sort of highlights these issues,” she says. “Spacing them out would make it seem like a topic is being dragged out for a long time, and people would lose passion between [productions].”
Meanwhile, the plays have already sparked a lot of meaningful dialogue. “Because of the subject matter, we’re having a lot of really great discussions about various things [involving] race, people’s preconceived notions, about things that have happened here at Warren Wilson, about things that people are afraid of or don’t understand,” Taylor reports, adding, “It’s extremely satisfying.”
Director and actors alike hope that Flyin’ West and Spinning Into Butter will prove thought-provoking for audience members, too — and give students another perspective on the literature, history and issues they’re dealing with in their classes. “Theater,” notes Taylor, “puts it out there in three dimensions.”
Warren Wilson productions take place at 8 p.m. in Kittredge Theatre. Spinning Into Butter will be staged Friday, Nov. 22, Sunday, Nov. 24, and Saturday, Dec. 7. Flyin’ West runs Saturday, Nov. 23, Friday, Dec. 6, and Sunday, Dec. 8. Free for all students and Warren Wilson community members/$10 general public. warren-wilson.edu/blogs/theatre.
— Micah Wilkins is the Editor-in-Chief of The Warren Wilson Echo.