Different Strokes and NC Stage produce new shows confronting racism

RENAISSANCE MAN: Actor and playwright Mike Wiley rehearses "Blood Done Sign My Name" at The Clayton Center, not far from his home in Raleigh. In partnership with NC Stage, the performances will be livestreamed from Clayton to viewers across the world, who will in turn be visible to Wiley via projection screens in the theater. Photo by Tracy Francis

Two Asheville theater companies — moved to address racial injustice by whatever means possible — are finding innovative ways to offer live performances via Zoom.

Building on such standout efforts as Asheville Community Theatre’s live reading of Little Women in May, The Magnetic Theatre’s Virtual One-Act Play Festival in June and Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s North Carolina premiere of Couples in August, Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective and North Carolina Stage Company are staging their most ambitious digital shows thus far.

Uniting over tragedy

With Different Strokes’ 2020 season pushed to 2021, managing artistic director Stephanie Hickling Beckman has shifted to what she calls a “COVID-19 modified 10th season.” In mid-August, the collective streamed a live, staged reading of Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 cautionary dark satire It Can’t Happen Here, which Hickling Beckman describes as being “about a demagogue — a rich man who’s elected to be president of the United States and starts to systematically destroy everything that the country was built on.” Up next on Friday, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m., is …while Black, a curated evening of dramatic readings, poetry and spoken word from Black Asheville-based artists.

Hickling Beckman says the production arose out of her “own personal crisis.” Following George Floyd’s death, she was having a rough time with the state of the nation and was sensing “the lack of community in this community,” noting Asheville’s low number of fellow Black residents. Feeling alone, yet knowing there must be others with similar woes, she put together a group of local Black creatives and began meeting regularly with them to discuss ways to artistically express themselves.

From these conversations arose the It Can’t Happen Here reading and …while Black, the timing of which is far from coincidental. Hickling Beckman calls the events of Sept. 11, 2001, “the biggest act of terrorism that we’ve experienced in this country, on this soil by people who are not from this country.” With the show, she seeks to make a point that racism and the killing of Black people is also an act of terrorism — one that “deserves as much respect as what happened on 9/11, because this is by people who live in this country against people who live in this country, which makes it worse.”

“We have all this division happening now, and I feel like, then, people did come together more than we probably ever have in my lifetime. People were appreciating each other more and recognizing the balance that kind of hangs between life and death,” she says. “There has to be something that puts people there again, and if we really recognize racism as a virus and an act of terrorism, maybe that will open eyes that haven’t fully been open yet.”

Janet Oliver, Eugene Jones, Kaity Taylor, Kevin Evans, ZaKiya Bell-Rogers and Hickling Beckman’s 9-year-old son, Zay, will perform live from their respective homes, while Shanita Jackson’s movement-intensive contribution will be filmed in advance to better facilitate its elaborate nature. Stage manager Jim Abbott will act as the show’s board operator on Zoom, offering an array of artist support.

“He’s making sure everything is going right in the [Zoom] room. He’s making sure that actors have their cameras on or have them off if they forget to, or have their mics off,” Hickling Beckman. “It’s an OK substitute for right now. I think it’s going to have to improve a lot for something like that to continue past the pandemic, but I think aspects of it will stay.”

More specifically, she sees Zoom as having the potential to greatly increase accessibility to theater, which, pre-COVID, she feels was at the point where something drastic needed to take place. “Now, people from all over the world can pretty much see what’s going on,” she says. “I’ve often felt like Different Strokes made such big statements in a lot of the plays that we’ve done that I wished that more people could have had the opportunity to see it. Now, we’re in that place where we can advertise more widely and not have to worry about a fire code or how many seats.” differentstrokespac.org

The two-way livestream

After successful runs of his one-man shows Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till (2018) and The Fire of Freedom (2019) at NC Stage, Raleigh-based actor and playwright Mike Wiley was looking forward to returning to Asheville for a third consecutive year. But when the pandemic hit and traditional theatrical performances were put on hiatus, a 2020 collaboration seemed unlikely.

Charlie Flynn-McIver, artistic director and co-founder of NC Stage, likewise wished to continue the partnership, but knew that Wiley’s penchant for audience participation called for something more than a one-way livestream. Meanwhile, at home, Flynn-McIver had staged a successful substitute for his high school daughter’s canceled senior prom — using their living room as a dance hall and broadcasting Zoom’s gallery view of loved ones on a projection screen while a webcam streamed the festivities live from Asheville. Within weeks, he tested out an upscaled version at NC Stage, thanking loyal donors and subscribers with a mini-concert from local actor and singer-songwriter Ben Mackel, who performed to a projection screen full of appreciative faces.

Flynn-McIver shared his idea with Wiley, who quickly signed on. In the wake of the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Wiley says it “felt right” to perform Blood Done Sign My Name, his adaptation of Timothy B. Tyson’s acclaimed memoir. The show recounts the killing of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, a Black, 23-year-old U.S. Army veteran who, in 1970, was beaten and shot to death in an Oxford, N.C., street by three white men, whose subsequent acquittal by an all-white jury sparked a season of violent unrest in the city.

Flynn-McIver proposed that Wiley come to Asheville, but with The Clayton Center just outside Raleigh already doing virtual concerts, Wiley suggested the performances take place there — an option that wouldn’t require him to travel, find a place to stay or socially distance with a new set of people. Wiley’s offer would also allow for Raleigh-based gospel singer Mary D. Williams, who he says serves as the show’s Greek chorus, to participate from the theater’s balcony.

Flynn-McIver agreed and will be in Clayton to help facilitate Blood Done Sign My Name, which runs Thursday, Sept. 10-Sunday, Sept. 27, with shows Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. He compares the theater’s size to that of the Diana Wortham Theatre, big enough for three large projector screens set up in the audience, on which viewers will be displayed in gallery view. The experience will mark the first time Wiley has done a two-way livestream performance, and while the parameters aren’t his first choice, he sees it as far superior to merely performing for a camera and an invisible audience.

“Early on, when artists were craving outlets to perform and were just kind of doing monologues to a camera and posting them on Facebook, I was really opposed to that,” Wiley says. “Theater for me is a bridge to other human beings that are experiencing the moment in the moment. It’s symbiotic — there’s a give-and-take to it that is deeply lacking when I cannot see who I’m performing for and they know that I am trying to make a connection with them. However, when I can see them and they know I can see them, we come closer to bridging the connection that’s there when it’s an actual live and in-person performance.”

Similar to an athletic competition being “more fierce when you can look up and see someone rooting for you to succeed,” Wiley says he works harder when he witnesses audience members’ expressions reflecting their desires to be entertained, moved and educated — a palpable energy that motivates him to “try and make deeper connections” as best he can. ncstage.org


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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