Ariana Mahallati and Abby Leigh Huffstetler in 'How to Defend Yourself', Humana Festival, 2019

Whether this meant crossing thresholds between worlds, understandings, desires, beliefs, or narrators, the 43rd annual Humana festival of New American Plays asked its audiences to traverse boundaries with care, presence and daring. This provocation was thrilling, and the response it brought forth was formidable. Pieces from the likes of Lily Padilla, Dave Harris, and Lucas Hnath lead the charge in a season of important new work.  

In Everybody Black, directed with brilliance and wit by Awoye Timpo, playwright Dave Harris probes how “the difference between recording history and writing theatre is so, so flimsy.” J. Cameron Barnett dazzles as Black Historian with energy and de-stabilizing gravitas. Setting the scene, Black Historian shares the request he has made to white funders to help him create a complete and comprehensive understanding of “The Black Experience ™” to be launched into space for an intended audiences of aliens. The funders pay…well. Amidst a pastiche of caricature-amalgamations, the actors stage a coup to adjust the journey towards a comprehensive “Black Experience™” to little avail. After a moment of intimate reflection (or refraction) we blast off into space. “All we are looking at when we read a play is the manipulation of words for a specific effect, and when we read a historical text it’s the same thing.” The challenge of black history – or any history, according to Harris, is that “it erases nuance.” This play hits that nail on the head. His challenging and formally unique piece marks the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long life in the American theatre.

Following the life of Iraqi protagonist Jawad Kasim (Arash Mokhtar), The Corpse Washer jolts the audience between internal and external conflicts as Jawad deals with the myriad legacies of an impossible inheritance. Must he continue to follow his father’s Muslim profession of washing corpses, or can he lead his own life and make his own choices? Speaking of the current situation in Iraq, co-writer Naomi Wallace said that, “when we allow these brutal wars to continue, we are damaging our capacity to be human.” Whether it was the language or the direction, at times the piece felt rhythmically stilted and didactic. However, Abraham Makany’s performances as Basim was a breath of fresh air, and scenes like a sensual triste in complete darkness and the washing of an actor’s body onstage held profound resonance. As with Dave Harris, who in Everybody Black asks the audience to imagine the impossibility of truth in history, writers Wallace, Antoon, and Khalidi weave an interrogation around the impossibility of inheriting history as a legacy. As Jawad’s present, past and future continue to be ripped and blasted to shards, he begins a trek to honor, remember, and rebuild, wash by wash. As Harris decimates the impossible in a collection, so Wallace, Antoonnand and Khalidi attempt to collect what may be impossible.

Lily Padilla’s How To Defend Yourself is a story with such formidable charge, humor and potency, it has the potential to forever rock the American theatrical landscape. Defend Yourself is a call to arms – a call to makers and audiences for radical intimacy and action. Centering on a self-defense class offered by collegiate senior and sorority sister Brandi after her friend’s brutal rape, the piece shows a new tapestry of connections being formed as sexuality, change, vulnerability and freedom pulse through the bodies of the class participants.

Anna Crivelli tunes her performance as Brandi perfectly to hit Padilla’s notes, ranging from sharp ferocity to sisterly warmth to Napoleon-like drive. From a monologue on assault to a free form dance, each member of the ensemble – which includes Ariana Mahallati, Gabriela Ortega, Abby Leigh Huffstetler, David Ball, Jonathan Moises Olivares, and Molly Adea – has moments of incredible softness and tenacity. A cameo from Phoenix Gilmore also, proverbially, takes the cake.

“What does it mean to carry around a lifetime of feeling like you need to defend yourself?” asks Padilla, who developed the piece in workshop at Ojai Playwrights conference right here on the central coast. “As artists, we’re often channeling painful feelings in order to learn that we can stand them. And when people come to the theatre, they see that they can stand them too. “ Padilla is spot on as she gracefully tackles issues of sexuality, consent, and power in the microcosm of a college gymnasium. The play is fierce and a must see. You can catch it next at at Victory Gardens in Chicago.

In Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place, Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) spends the entire 90 minutes in one chair, a move which, thanks in part to the sublime Les Waters, proves haunting and tense enough to scare her audience into submission. Hilda lures us into the possibility that yes, there is a thin place between worlds, and we should be extremely cautious about traversing it. Under Waters’ direction, and with an extraordinary cast, Hnath’s words sneak into our chests to do their dangerous and unsettling work. As Hilda, McDonnell is unreal; surely one of the most remarkable performances of the entire festival. Loud tiffs and departures punctuate the quiet, rhythmic build of the ensemble, catching the audience off guard in tantalizing ways. The theatre balances us on the precipice of the thin place seductively and menacingly. Who is tricking who? What is it to open a part of ourselves up in a liminal space? Words like “feeding” and “mother” and “trick” are heard anew as storytelling is stripped to its powerful underbelly and coaxed into its ability to conjure. Hnath has an incredible ability to curate words onstage. He’s like a fine gallerist who has turned from art to alchemy – his combinations pop, float, and frighten while maintaining a sense of modern architecture in their theatricality. The piece soars in its focus and simplicity. I cannot wait to see where and when audiences will get to visit this thin place again.

In a late night and mid-morning offering, the incredible Will Davis directed the apprentice company a dreamlike march into Kara Lee Corthron, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos’ strong and unique interrogations of what “We’ve Come to Believe.” The piece breathed life, literally, into inquiry with moments of lovely dark comedy and surprise encased in tight ensemble work.

Whether it’s the draw of a celebration with the country’s most incredible new voices, the chance to see excellent new work first, or the opportunity to engage with provocative panels like Share the Spark, Humana sets the bar for what a new play festival can offer to its local and national community. I can’t wait to see where Actors Theatre’s incoming artistic director – the amazing Robert Barry – takes the festival next.


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