Presented by BroadAxe Theatre
April 29-May 1
at the Belcourt Theatre
The Trojan Women
Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble
April 30-May 8
at the Neuhoff Site
Two of Nashville's more adventuresome theater organizationsBroadAxe Theatre and Actors Bridge Ensembleare debuting productions this week, offering rarefied stagings that serve up serious food for thought.
Spearheaded by co-founders Steve Earle and Sara Sharpe, BroadAxe has developed a reputation for bringing together artists unafraid to tackle topics of sociopolitical relevance. The company continues that tradition with its presentation of the Nashville premiere of The Exonerated, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's acclaimed, fact-based play about the lives of six American death row inmates who were cleared of their crimes and subsequently released from prison, some after being incarcerated for more than 20 years.
Jensen and Blank began to put together the script's series of intersecting monologues about four years ago, drawing upon material gathered from interviews with convicted felons who were eventually proven innocent based on the results of DNA testing or outside confessions.
"This play had a lot to do with shaping my views on capital punishment," says BroadAxe artistic director Jeremy Childs. "The idea of innocent people being put to death is the most heinous thing I can think of."
Not surprisingly, various activist groups, such as the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), have rallied to the play's support.
"In the wake of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, this play is particularly compelling," says Randy Tatel, TCASK executive director. "The stories told here reveal to us a capital punishment system that produces two hidden sets of victims. First, there are innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. Second, when a person is executed, their family members become survivors of homicide victims. Their feelings of loss, grief and pain are as deep and real as any other victim's feeling. They are themselves traumatized, yet banished by most victims' rights advocates."
At this weekend's performances at the Belcourt Theatre, TCASK will sponsor the appearance of Ray Krone, the nation's 100th exonerated death row inmate. Kerry Max Cook, another exonerated man who's portrayed in the play by Earle, will also be in attendance. Evening shows will feature post-event talk-back sessions with the audience.
BroadAxe has been fortunate to assemble a formidable lineup of performers. As poet/ex-con Delbert Tibbs, the acclaimed Barry Scott leads the cast of 10, which includes Don Jones, Marlon Styles, Reegus Flenory, Sharpe and Earle as the exonerated prisoners. Stella Reed, Jennifer Jewell, Bruce Kronenberg (from the New York Culture Project's original cast) and Childs fill out the ensemble, playing roles incidental to the main subjects' lives and legal proceedings.
There's no designated director as such, but Kronenberg is overseeing what is in essence the re-staging of the New York version, which was mounted by veteran film and theater actor Bob Balaban.
"Simple, honest storytelling is what it is," Childs says. "It's inspirational as well as heartbreaking. It's a story of hope. I think the subject matter is something everybody should be educated about."
Actors Bridge Ensemble's world-premiere adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women, being staged in an abandoned machine shop on the grounds of Germantown's Neuhoff Site, is no less socially relevant, and has a lot more raw-boned atmosphere.
A team of ABE writersprimarily Bill Feehely, Vali Forrister and Joe Keenanhave drawn on the cultural and political experiences of members of Nashville's immigrant Kurdish community to revisit the classic tale of war-torn women dealing with their occupiers in their own devastated homeland. (Nashville boasts the largest single urban U.S. population of Kurds, some 8,000 strong.)
Amidst craggy concrete, rusted pipe fittings, oversized windows and a cavernous, echo-inducing ceiling, Feehely directs a company of 16, which includes Wesley Paine as Hecuba, Jenny Littleton as Cassandra, Erica Rowlett as Helen of Troy and Forrister as Andromache. Situated in the shadow of Nashville's downtown skyline, and surrounded by the sounds of barges and trains, the Neuhoff Site provides ABE the opportunity to mount what the company calls "environmental theater." Temporary seating will accommodate an audience of 80.
"This is a cool space. It has the ambience of something that's been neglected or bombed," Feehely says. "We've updated the play to modern times. Though it's actually unspecific to place, it is certainly reminiscent of a lot of locales, particularly because we connected with the Kurdish community, who come from northern Iraq, which is the supposed historical location of Troy."
The ABE writers have maintained the play's original framework, though the choral passages have been infused with contemporary Kurdish stories. The production will also include a cappella choral singing and primitive percussive effects under the musical direction of Tim Fudge. Paul Hull is providing the original costumes, which feature gypsy-like wraps laced with a Middle Eastern sensibility that hearkens back into history.
"The message of this play is that the victims of war are victims no matter who is the victor," Paine says. "In this way, we get the words of Euripides across to a modern audience. There's a good deal of weeping and wailing, and you can't be a part of it and not feel the anguish."
This is ABE's first-ever mounting of a classical Greek drama. "We'd wanted to do this play for a while," says Feehely, "because it's very open to interesting directorial elements. We had put it on the back burner, but this is one of those times where the space became almost a character in itself. The play fits this space. It also fits our desire to do material that speaks to our community in broader termsnot only the dominant white middle-class."
When asked if The Trojan Women fits as a reflection piece on pacifism and current world events, Feehely rejects any propagandistic notions. "It's funny," he says. "You have your own feelings. And I may have a liberal orientation toward things. But in talking to the Kurds, there is great joy among them in the fact that a dictator [Saddam Hussein] has been deposed, since they were a put-upon minority in Iraq. We're simply trying to be true to Euripides, to what he's saying about the circumstances of warand to exalt as hero the civilian population that finds itself caught in the crosshairs. There's a universality in that, and audiences can draw their own conclusions. The main characters are metaphors for how war impacts individuals and groups."
"This production is not about good guys or bad guys," Forrister adds. "Instead, it concerns the people who are trying to bake bread and feed their children while bombs fly overhead."
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