Post-Apocalyptic, Classically-Imagined Tragedy: THIRST at Contemporary American Theater Festival
C.A. Johnson's Thirst, receiving its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, feels a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy. In a Southern county, Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has restored order after a national war over natural resources, and because of his command of the communal well, he is effectively the local warlord. It is good to be king, and Terrance's community is on the verge of celebrating the first anniversary of the peace Terrance has restored. But there is a thing he can't let go of, like Lear, like Othello, like Richard II. And if you're a tragic hero and you can't let go when you ought to, then bad things will happen to you and those you are close to.
In this case, what Terrance cannot let go of is his claim on Samira (Monet), his wife who left him for another. That the other, Greta (Jessica Savage) is female and white, while Samira and Terrance are black, is not of great significance to Terrance; that Greta stands in the way of an imagined reunion with Samira is the only thing that matters. Terrance should know that his pursuit is hopeless. His war minister Coolie (Justin Withers) tells him: "[S]he was gone Terrance. Even before she run off into them woods and leave you, she was long gone. Wasn't nothin' for you in her eyes." But Terrance clings to the insane notion that the mere status of husband endows him with a right to her, even when there is no longer a legal system either to establish or enforce any rights, and when the trauma of losing their children in the apocalyptic times has fully severed Samira's bond with him.
Nor is Terrance the only one who can't let go. Samira, who has begun a new family at a clearing in the woods with Greta and an orphan named Kalil (Jalon Christian), clings to her notion that she can completely avoid dealing with Terrance, even though he controls the water and is the most powerful person in the vicinity, and is seeking a confrontation with her.
Terrance and Samira's obsessions, and their separate failures to acknowledge realities and balance their obsessions with other considerations, will cost everyone, not just themselves, dearly. And though most of the play is in African American dialect, and the story numbers among its concerns contemporary things like race relations and same-sex relationships, the dynamics are pure classical tragedy. And the classics are the classics for good reason; they have discovered much of what works in the theater. Thirst's power largely derives from an underlying classical structure.
At the same time, Johnson has appropriated some potency from a more modern mythos, that of social breakdown. After a century or more of imaginings of a world where law and order have broken down, of Sarah Kane's Blasted and Lynn Nottage's Ruined and the Mad Max movies and A Clockwork Orange, not to mention the real-life example of failed states like Yugoslavia and Somalia, we expect that kind of breakdown to be accompanied by nearly meaningless violence. There is a good deal of that here as well, and it is the more horrifying because it and its consequences are graphically depicted (kudos to fight director Aaron Anderson and assistant Joe Myers), and because Terrance, the one who has the potential to continue protecting his entire community from it, is the one who brings it back in again with him.
Dramatic works about social breakdown generally incorporate a story about the efforts of individuals to restore or at least to hang onto the vestiges of civility and order, even if it is only on the family level, motivated by a yearning somehow to return to the way things were before. We see that here as well, including the efforts of Terrance's brother Bankhead (William Oliver Watkins), an unexpected protector of human decency (pictured above with Jessica Savage).
There is much more to say about all of this, but it would require too many spoilers. I would merely observe that the resolution is credible and disheartening, but not entirely without hope. Audiences will find Thirst, like its classical predecessors, harrowing but also cathartic.
Naturally, a work of the ambition of this one will not come off properly without first-rate acting and direction (a hat-tip to Adrienne Campbell-Holt), and great technical support. The Festival, as is its wont, supplies all these things.
If you are not doing all of this year's Festival, this is surely one of the shows not to miss.
Thirst, by C.A. Johnson, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 29 at the Marinoff Theater, 62 West Campus Drive, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $35-$65 at 800.999.CATF or 304.876.3473 or http://catf.org/tickets/ . Smoke, lethal violence, gunfire, gunshot trauma.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman.