Fall Festival of Plays adapts to COVID-19, addresses themes of race, inequality

The “Fall Festival of Plays” set is pictured in Balch Arena Theater. Courtesy Heather Nathans

Lights, camera, (virtual) action. Starting on Oct. 30, the Tufts Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies screened three plays in its Fall Festival of Plays.

Grounded in themes of racism and civility, this semester’s sequence of plays — “The New Black Fest’s HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments” (2017), “God of Carnage” (2008), and “Smart People” (2014) — are undoubtedly relevant to the times and seemed like obvious selections for Director Maurice Emmanuel Parent.

“I wanted a play that responded to the times, by the times I mean the times of dual pandemics, one of systemic racism being persistent and people taking a hard look at [it] because of the other pandemic, which is COVID-19,” Parent said.

With that in mind, the plays respond to both societal ails by delving into racism and being performed in a safe environment.

“Hands Up” details the stories of seven Black people and explores their feelings about the well-being of Black people in a society of institutional profiling.

“We are on the tail end of the biggest civil rights protest in history world-wide,” Noirret Francis, an actress, wrote in an email to the Daily. “This production is incredibly relevant, and they contain stories that we might not have been allowed to tell / people might not have been receptive to, even ten years ago.”

“God of Carnage” follows two children from Brooklyn who have gotten into a violent fight, and upon their families becoming involved, it spirals even more out of control. Kevin Schult, who played Michael Novak, the father of the child who got seriously injured, spoke to the play’s relevance.

“I think it’s relevant to the times because a lot of people in American society today and in years past believe themselves to be good people when they support evil or cruel causes,” Schult said. “And in the past decade, I suppose, we’ve seen more and more of these circumstances where people are pushed to their limit, maybe because of the circumstances, and reveal their true selves and do horrible things.”

Schult believes that the play poses questions of civility and our evolution as a society.

Written by playwright Lydia Diamond, who is Black, “Smart People” is set in on the eve of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election, where four intelligent Cambridge residents explore the impact of the election on their identities and society altogether.

“Even though this play takes place 12 years ago, it’s as if it’s from the future because we’re witnessing in this play this monumental play of a Black man getting elected as president, and now that seems like it’s impossible with all of the stuff that’s been happening,” Kenneth Crossman said. Crossman plays Brian, a Harvard neuroscientist who is studying the brain’s responses to race and its societal implications.  

In “Smart People,” Andre Cleaver plays Jackson Moore, a surgical intern at Harvard Medical School who is overlooked as a doctor. 

“Jackson’s story resonates with me because we grew up without access to academic mentorship and we are also no strangers to being people from historically marginalized communities,” Cleaver wrote in an email to the Daily.

The plays were chosen with great thoughtfulness, as were its formats. The three-play structure allowed for students to have short but intense commitments of in-person rehearsals and an official performance spanning less than one week. Furthermore, in hopes of relieving some stress, actors did not have to memorize their lines and instead followed a script-in-hand reading.

“It’s actually kind of freeing in that if you’re in a standard rehearsal in the old days, you need to worry about your presentation of the line, as well as your stance, or maybe you need to be moving somewhere, or gathering a prop,” Schult said.

Chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies Heather Nathans, Director of Tufts Medical Center Michael Jordan and Senior Campus Planner Heidi Sokol were responsible for helping to create a safe environment in which to act.  

“The three of us did a walk-through of the space before the year started to map things out, and once we had the plans for the booths we discussed them with Dr. Jordan, and then we sent them up to Dr. Jordan to make sure that they seemed okay,” Nathans said.

According to Nathans and Parent, the department worked to create sanitized pods of clear material where the actors enter, remove their mask and read from their script with the camera or cell phone filming them. The pods’ backgrounds were changed to reflect the scenes. Sound designer Adam Smith was tasked with editing and compiling the scenes together in a coherent sequence. As opposed to crew members helping actors with makeup, hair and costumes, they set out makeup and instructed the actors on how to apply it.

Such as with getting permission to record the performance, Parent spoke of potential hurdles to theater in the COVID-19 digital age: “As we speak, there’s a lot of negotiation between [actor unions and guilds] speaking to how to navigate this new world. Is this TV? Is this theater?”  

To Parent, this new-age theater is an odd combination, where some rules from both worlds apply. For the actors involved, having no audience was an adjustment.  

“It’s certainly different in say, in some comedy you’re always listening for the audience to laugh. Or waiting for the audience to be complicit in what you’re doing,” Schult said. “You obviously can’t do that when your audience is a camera.”  

He admitted that with some practice it was quite similar to having a real audience, citing the need to be complicit with the camera without directly looking at it. As for future plays at Tufts, they will be most likely following a similar structure.  

“Absent of a miracle, we’re going to need to put everyone’s health and safety at the top of the list,” Nathans said.  

She believes the entire production team has felt that they have learned immensely, and the three-play series placed them in a strong position to look toward the spring with experience.

Speaking to the drama that COVID-19 has presented, the cast and crew were in awe of their teamwork and perseverance. As Nathans said, “We’re performance people, we’re artists, this is what we do — we figure it out.”