BWW Review: SLAM BOSTON at Open Theatre Project
In order to write about Open Theatre Project's 7th Annual Slam Boston (a series of home-grown 10 minute plays hosted at Boston Playwright's Theatre), one must first open up the discussion of the 'D' word. That's right, Boston. Let's talk about that 9-letter word that not only kills in Scrabble, but also purports to have the mystical power of selling tickets, encouraging productive conversation, and absolving institutions of the need to engage with their more inherently exclusive practices. Diversity.
Upon entering the theatre and locating a comfortable seat in the corner, I opened up my program for the evening and was accosted by an over-saturation of the 'D' word. It appears in some form no less than 6 times on the first page of the program alone. Genuinely diverse spaces of theatrical production exist in Boston (I had the privilege of reviewing Praxis Stage's Coriolanus and Fort Point Theatre Channel's Tempest Reconfigured recently, both of which boasted evidence of wide-reaching, effective community-building and engagement in their audiences, casts, and production teams.) However, institutions which have not engaged in the same level of legwork continue to tote the 'D' word in ways that seem, at best, naïve, and at worst, exploitative. Slam Boston unfortunately sits closer to the missteps I complained of in ArtsEmerson's The Magic Flute and Umbrella Stage Company's Fences than anything else. To apply the 'D' word to anything happening on the stage or in the audience is grossly overreaching.
"Middle class stories are neither tragic nor wildly comedic simply because, when it comes to the middle class, the stakes aren't high enough. Take that, Willy Loman.
But I believe most plays nowadays are sadly about the middle class."
As we speak of the 'D' word, the interweaving of quotes from theatre artists who are leading the charge to get it right feels necessary. The above quote, taken from Taylor Mac's manifesto on theatre, I Believe, begins to unpack the mundane and decidedly un-diverse series of perspectives set forth in the evening. Socio-economic diversity is rarely discussed in the theatre, yet it interacts with race, gender, sexuality, ability, and everything else that seems to be on-trend for major art institutions to performatively care about. Mac goes on to state;
"I believe ten-minute play festivals should be excommunicated from our industry.
Because I believe we almost always stop before we've truly finished."
While there is something to be said for the relative ease with which an evening of ten-minute plays can be produced, Slam Boston feels like an argument for Mac's cause. While many of the pieces scraped the surface of hot-button issues, a disappointing few seemed to have anything to say, and even fewer were able to convey their perspectives effectively. Most of the pieces followed a standard formula:
10 seconds of a Lizzo song. One that gets a lot of air time on the radio.
Lights up on two actors in some configuration with two chairs.
4 minutes of vague, not-quite-realistic dialogue about resentment of a parent/ desire for affection/ suspicion of an affair/ any other slice of everyday life with a few Tumblr-worn jokes thrown in.
An argument begins.
2 minutes of yelling interpolated with pointing.
A heartwarming twist/ punchline/ Co-Star message.
Lights fade. Slow. Slower.
10 seconds of Joni Mitchell.
"Theater (and the arts in general) is dominated by stories told by and/or about the middle-to-upper classes in part because we artists, academics, and gatekeepers aren't making enough effort to let everyone else in. True diversity includes socioeconomic diversity."
This also hits on what seemed to make Slam Boston feel so homogenous. While I cannot claim to know the socio-economic status of every artist who worked on the show, it does not matter. The fact is, the evening felt incredibly one-note, rarely broken up by a moment of theatricality or a revelation, no matter how miniscule. Unlike my experiences with Fort Point and Praxis Stage who blew open perspectives from various backgrounds, Open Theatre Project has populated the cast with many of the conventionally-attractive faces of actors I recognize from productions at larger Boston institutions. All of this seems to point to a chasm between Open Theatre Project's mission statement ("transforming lives and building thriving communities") and their willingness to enact it.
This considered, there were some decisively profound moments in the evening. Pascale Florestal has written a soundly nuanced script for Blended, which successfully raises complicated moral questions for an audience without pandering or becoming excessively demonstrative. The piece breezes through a plethora of societal injustices that hit their marks with clarity and an unwavering perspective. Performances by Kelly Chick, Olivia Cote, and Aliyah Harris are fibrous and crude, as three women engaging in discourse about maternal surrogacy. Under the direction of Lyndsay Allyn Cox, the trio maneuvers smoothly through engagements with awkwardness, familiarity, and tension. A twist ending which could easily fall prey to triteness lands with nobility thanks to Florestal's grasp of subtlety and Cote's uninhibited performance. Remarkably, it is the only play presented which deals with any manner of intersectionality, as it touches upon how queerness and race affect the desire to nurture a child.
Another highlight is Thomas Grenon as Chuck, a flamboyant homosexual living in America 60 years ago in Nick Malakhow's Confirmation Bias. Though the piece stumbles through a buffet of queer tropes, Grenon is a beacon of charm in the role, confident in his histrionics and resolute in his identity. He masterfully allows cracks of insecurity to shine through, painting a sympathetic picture of a man who must perform at all times in order to survive. Grenon serves double-duty, also directing the final piece of the night, Are You One of Those Robots? by Deirdre Girard. The play is refreshingly simple, a phone call between a depressed woman and a healthcare worker reading a script. Karen Dervin gives the show-stopping performance of the evening as the beleaguered professional on the phone struggling between doing her job and helping this anonymous person. With few physical adjustments, the alacrity of her voice alone takes the audience through laughter and tears (I know that is an expression, but she conjures a very real tenderness that could melt the hardest hearts and one can hear stifled gasps throughout the audience). Girard has written a heartwarming piece, but Dervin makes it feel personal and significant.
Unfortunately, and in disservice to the artists involved, the evening is framed like an event at a college orientation, hosted by over-eager sophomores hoping in vain to fill young fledgling's hearts with joy and excitement. Artistic director Dustin D Bell in his Hawaiian print shirt and scally cap and emcee Sarah Jacobs wear plastered-on grins that immediately bull-doze through any lingering effects of the plays presented. Once each play has finished, ill-hung stage lights glare directly into the audiences' eyes at a speed which does not permit the necessary pupil dilation to occur. Effectively, attempts to discuss race, gender, and sexuality are consistently interrupted by a flash of light and the condescendingly abrasive reminder to clap really loud. A framing device in which audience members rate the plays on white boards, while evidently intended to stir lively engagement, feels mishandled and frankly dystopian.
Overall, while I was disappointed by what I felt was going to be a more varied evening of theatre, there is some excellent work to be seen in Slam Boston. Wear sunglasses.
Information about the event here.
Dustin D Bell, OTP's founder and artistic director reached out and engaged in brief conversation in response to this review. He said;
"It's so refreshing to hear this level of insight for a 10 min play fest, you're the only person we've had do a formal review of SLAM after 7 of them. While we've always tried to put our best foot forward with this annual tradition, your message cuts through to the heart of conversations we're having in our Board and our Core. It starts with a stronger commitment to representation in our leadership and a refusal to back down until that is there, this is our #1 priority in 2019 & 2020 and so far we've come so far there."
This idea calls attention to Boston's theatre eco-system and an idea that I have also grappled with. The work OTP does is vital for the formation of young artists or non-traditional artists who come to the work from unconventional angles. While little attention is paid to this work, it feels that problems (of inclusivity, accessibility, community engagement) if addressed at this level, bode well for the artistic community as a whole. Why, then is this work neglected and, ultimately, ignored by those 'sanctioning' institutions who decide what is and is not worthy of legitimate discussion?
Bell further said;
"I also wanted to thank you for the call out on socio-economical focus and more intersectionality. You're completely right and we need to take to heart in the same ways we've evolved how we represent our world on stage. While some voices shine and thrive, others don't and you couldn't be more right."
Just as with a former response to an ArtsEmerson review by their artistic director, David Dower, Bell rightly agrees that those things I criticize in the presentation are not easy fixes. They are injustices handed down to OTP and almost every theatre in the western world by centuries of oppression and exclusivity. As a white reviewer, it is not my intent to assume theatres are unaware of the issues I point out, but to open up these issues and continue to engage with them. I am thankful to those who reach out in response to share their thoughts. I look forward to seeing more from OTP, and hopefully attending their Slams in the future.