written and directed by Holly L. Derr
Skidmore College, Fall 2014
sets by Garret Wilson
lighting by Jared Klein
costumes by Patricia Pawliczak
December 14, 2015
written and directed by Holly L. Derr
Skidmore College, Fall 2014
sets by Garret Wilson
lighting by Jared Klein
costumes by Patricia Pawliczak
October 7, 2015
(This post was part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game Change, originally published in June, 2015. The following questions informed the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?
HOLLY L. DERR: The most game-changing production I ever saw – or at least the one that changed me the most – was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I had grown up listening to the soundtracks of classic musical theater because my Mom is a huge fan, but I had this idea that musicals were all fluff with little substance. I remember that the first time I saw Noise Funk, I was sitting in the front row, right at eye level with the dancers’ feet, and I was blown away by their skill. It wasn’t just the artistry that changed me, though, it was the realization that musicals could be as entertaining as a rock concert, as full of history as a college-level class, and as political as anything by Augusto Boal. That’s the kind of work I want to make.
The production I made that changed me the most was my thesis show at Columbia. I had chosen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies because the five female actors in it play characters who are male, female, Western, and non-Western, and because it required me, as the director, to learn about something I knew nothing about – Sufi Mysticism. Well, my timing was terrible, because three weeks before we opened 9/11 happened, and three of the five actors in the show quit because they didn’t want to play Muslims. I was about to cancel the show all together when a friend and dramaturg encouraged me to at least do a reading of the it, and I ended up doing what I called “A Reconstructed Production,” that involved three new actors. Everyone read from their scripts, and we completely redesigned the costumes, the set, and the projections, put me and the assistant director onstage as narrators, and added sketches between each scene that provided context about the differences between Sufism and fundamentalist Islam, the colonization of North Africa, the still-unfolding drama of the attack on the World Trade Center, and the process the artists had gone through in getting the show up. It was a huge lesson for me in never giving up, knowing whom my friends are and listening to them, and using theater to educate, heal, and bring a community together.
JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
HLD: Shortly after Noise Funk opened on Broadway, I got a job as the assistant to the general manager at The Public Theater. I had been a huge admirer of George C. Wolfe for years, having come up from North Carolina, where I went to college, to see Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America, so I was pretty psyched to be working at the institution he was running. The first thing that blew me away about working there was the diversity at every single level. It wasn’t just that the programming was incredibly diverse, from the new plays to the color-blind cast Shakespeare, it was that every department included a mix of people of all colors, ages, sizes, and orientations, and so did the audiences. Today when I hear theater leaders say, “We’re trying to diversify, but it’s hard,” I think to myself, “It can’t be that hard. I’ve seen it done.”
The other thing that struck me about working for one of my heroes was the realization that he’s just a person like everybody else. George is very private and very protective of the space in his inner circle, and though at first I was disappointed that we couldn’t just sit down and shoot the sh*t, the realization that the artists and leaders we idolize are just as human as we are was really important for me. I had a similar experience when, after idolizing Anne Bogart from a distance for years, I finally went to study with her at Columbia and found her to be warm and funny and curious and totally open to whomever is sitting in the chair next to her. I’m lucky now to call her not just a teacher and a mentor but also a friend, and I think her ability to form long-lasting friendships – not networking relationships but actual friendships – with the people she works and learns with is part of what makes her a great leader.
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
HLD: Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. (I’ll say it again. Diversity.) Obviously racial/ethnic and gender diversity are a big topic of conversation right now, but I think we need to focus on economic diversity, too. Making a career in the theater almost always involves going to college, having time while at college to do shows instead of work a part-time job, do summer theater programs that cost thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, and then work for free for years upon graduation. This is a totally untenable situation for someone who doesn’t have family money, and it is the number one reason that the work made in professional theaters is very aristocratic in both subject and tone. How can we tell stories about people whose life experiences aren’t upper class when all of the people making theater are upper class?
JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?
HLD: Economic inequality, both within countries and between them. The distribution of resources in our world is so off, and yet most of the people with the resources don’t even realize it because we don’t see the people who are living without. We live in different neighborhoods, we go to different schools and different parties, we use different medical facilities, and we have different government representatives. If theater can manage to diversify economically – can stop making working for free the price of admission to the profession – we can confront audiences with stories about what life is really like for 98% of people on this earth. Right now theater is a ghetto of privilege, and if we don’t want the world to work that way, we can’t let theater work that way any more either.
Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor specializing in Viewpoints and the performance of gender. Her most recent productions were Harry and the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer at The Know Theatre and her own play American Medea at Skidmore College. Holly holds an MFA from Columbia and has taught/directed at Smith College and The ART Institute, among others. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore where she will direct Macbeth this fall. Holly is also a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.jacquelinelawton.com
October 7, 2015
Originally published by HowlRound on March 26, 2015
Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.
The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.
Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.
Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.
Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.
Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.
What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.
Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.
Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.
Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.
January 13, 2015
September 10, 2014
(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MO. This series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia Alick, Mica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.
The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.
This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.
Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.
This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.
Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to. Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.
In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.
But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.
Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? 
In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.
If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.
 Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.
 This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.
September 10, 2014
Originally published by The Know Theatre of Cincinnati on July 17, 2014
In preparation for directing Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief, I’m reading a book called Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. In it, the author, Milton C. Sernott, traces the development of Harriet Tubman as American icon by examining primary sources, children’s books (there are more than 100), and historical biographies. Quoting historian David W. Blight, Sernott explains how myth develops from a combination of history and memory:
Memory is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sacred sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts and the complexity of cause and effect. History asserts the authority of academic training and recognized canons of evidence; memory carries the often powerful authority of community membership and experience.
Gilmer’s new play about one of the most famous African Americans in history draws on both history and cultural memory to depict Tubman as we’ve never seen her before.
Whereas first-hand accounts of Tubman telling her own story use the dialect typically ascribed to illiterate slaves – “I saw de’ oberseer raisin’ up to throw an iron weight at one ob de slaves an’ dat wuz de las’ I knew” – Gilmer’s Tubman speaks with the voice of a modern leader. Whereas many accounts of Tubman’s life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad conflate historical fact with received memories without comment, Gilmer uses contemporary songs and film tropes to emphasize the fact that when we tell the story of Harriet Tubman, we are telling a story on a scale as epic as that of any ancient mythology.
When the Know approached me about directing Harry, I responded with enthusiasm but also asked that every attempt be made to find a black woman to direct. Though as a journalist I have covered successful collaborations between black playwrights and white directors (see here and here), and one between a white playwright and a black director (here), I am extremely wary of co-opting the story of a black woman as told by another black woman.
Many times in the history of American entertainment, the creative endeavors of African Americans have been stolen, imitated, corrupted, and otherwise used for profit by white Americans. Sometimes it’s done poorly (see my piece on Miley Cyrus at the VMAs), and sometimes it’s done with amazing artistic integrity. But even Jenji Kohan, who means well and is making a hugely important contribution to diversity in entertainment with her series Orange is the New Black, has not been able to avoid turning a story about something largely experienced by women of color and poor women into a partial regurgitation of the lie of the rich, white savior.
In Harry and the Thief, there is no white savior.
In fact, there are only two white characters, and though their arcs are fascinating and integral to the play, this is story about fugitive slaves, about contemporary black men and women grappling with the ongoing legacy of slavery in American culture, and about the malleability of history, especially when it comes to the disenfranchised.
As a director, I often describe what I do as translation. I translate writing on the page into action on the stage. I translate actor impulses into narrative structures. I translate history and memory into stories being told right here, right now, right in front of the audience. My hope with this production is that I can serve primarily as a translator for the epic myth of Harriet Tubman, for Gilmer’s voice, and for the memories and thoughts and feelings of the actors embodying these characters. Because I can read about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, I can read about modern-day discrimination, and I can imagine myself walking in the shoes of a person who experienced/s that. But I cannot remember it.
One of my favorite teachers and mentors, Anne Bogart, has a new book out, What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, in which she advises readers on the value of telling stories even about things you the storyteller and your audience have never experienced:
It is becoming increasingly clear that the hegemony of isolationism is not a solution to our present global circumstances. Our understanding of action and responsibility is changing. We know that our tiniest gestures have large-scale effects, as do the outward ripples of a pebble thrown into a pond. In moments such as these, of upheaval and change, stories become necessary to frame our experiences. … From their ancient origins and continuing through today, stories bind societies by reinforcing common values and strengthening the ties of a shared culture. But they do more than that. Stories give order and meaning to existence and are less costly than direct experience because with stories it is possible to collect information without having to personally undergo the experience. … In the theater we construct journeys for audiences utilizing the tools of time and space. An effective production communicates in ways that infiltrate the audience in multiple layers, weaving details and scenes, narration, imagery, symbolic action, plot and character. We create societies, tell stories, and propose means by which people can live together with increased humanity, empathy, and humor.
Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry and the Thief not only provides a new version of the Tubman myth, it also endows that myth with the possibility of engendering even more dramatic social change.
I can’t wait to get started translating this play into a production that can provide audiences with the opportunity to dream and imagine a future on a scale as grand as Gilmer’s fictional one.
August 12, 2014
If you saw Know Theatre’s production of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON then you have a pretty decent idea of what to expect from HARRY AND THE THIEF, minus the music. HARRY, billed as “a hilarious and socially relevant mashup of action movie swagger and historical melodrama, where a mad scientist sends his thieving cousin back in time to arm Harriet Tubman – with lots and lots of guns” lives up to its advertising.
Essentially, the show is an action movie on stage and scenic designer (and Know Artistic Director) Andrew Hungerford makes the most of the space by using a projection screen to set time and place, often with outrageously funny slides and sight gags. Director Holly L. Derr places her wonderful cast on the…
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