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Posts Tagged Center for Victims of Torture

MICHAEL JEMISON: Living With Intention

Michael Jemison reviewing his script prior to rehearsal.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Asked by Courier-Journal reporter Elizabeth Kramer in March 2016 what had planted the seeds for writing Cardboard Piano, South Korean playwright Hansol Jung answered, “There was a lot of media noise in 2013 about northern Uganda kidnappings by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army and about child soldiers. There also was a lot of coverage about gay marriage in the United States and Korea. Uganda also passed a bill in 2013 punishing homosexuality.” Michael Jemison’s two roles in Park Square Theater’s production of Cardboard Piano directly reflect those seeds.

In Act I, Michael plays Pika, a 13-year-old runaway child soldier in Act I; in Act II, he is Francis, a 22-year-old young man banished from his local church due to his homosexuality. Both are incredibly resilient survivors against the cruelties of an intolerant society.

As a black queer artist who also happens to be 22, Michael came on board able to relate to important aspects of his characters but also learned much during the rehearsal process.

“I’ve learned so much about trauma (through the Center for Victims of Torture),” Michael said. “Trauma is something that varies for so many people and affects people in different ways. In the play, Pika’s a young boy taken at ten years old! But trauma happens here in the US, too! There’s queer-bashing and the murder of transgender people, for instance. Or preachers feeling high and mighty and doing awful things to their congregations with their power.  All these things are not new.”

Michael Jemison as Francis.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Michael was very drawn to the dynamic aspects of his roles and how they can be played in so many different ways. He’s enjoyed the creative process of building his characters by “playing around” and “trying different things.” It’s been additionally exciting since, according to Michael, “the roles fit where I am in life.”

After much self-reflection, where Michael is in life is a place where he stays true to his own inner compass. He is mindful to be involved in doing art that reflects current times, has a lot to say and gives voice to those creating it. Being in Cardboard Piano fit all those criteria and drew him out of a long hiatus from stage performance.

“It’s been an amazing experience working with this director, cast and crew. Everyone is so passionate about this story and cares about it,” Michael said. “And I knew that Signe would be the type of director who’d let me have my say in the room. More rehearsals should be like this. A lot of actors don’t get much of a voice in the rehearsal process.”

Perhaps Michael will again be seduced to perform in another production after Cardboard Piano, but it may be hard to tear him away from what he calls his “dream project,” the podcast Challenge the Woke, “dedicated to creating space for black and queer people of color to hold important conversations as it relates to race, gender, class and sexuality.”

Michael Jemison

What had planted the seeds to produce Challenge the Woke were Michael’s “beautiful conversations” with people during his intense period of self-reflection. The idea came in 2016; but it wasn’t until 2017, after a successful crowdfunding effort and a lot of planning, that the first broadcast aired. Since then, he has interviewed social activists such as Black Lives Matter co-founder Michael McDowell; TV journalist, arts supporter and entrepreneur Robyne Robinson; and most recently, Andrea Jenkins, the first black transgender woman elected to public office in the US. Future conversations will follow with sensational artists and other awesome guests from the US and globally. Challenge the Woke has steadily blossomed under Michael’s hard work and tender care.

This young transplant from New York to the Twin Cities has every intention to continue following a personally meaningful path. In his own words, “I am here and ready to go on a journey and continue to discover!”

Listen to Challenge the Woke here.

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here.

Park Square Theatre and the Beauty of Trying

Park Square Theatre describes Cardboard Piano as a powerful story that “examines the cost of intolerance as well as the human capacity for love and forgiveness.” Its arrival at Park Square for its Midwest premiere (January 19 to February 18) comes at a prescient time in the Twin Cities theatre scene, as changing demographics becomes a major driver for arts organizations to reexamine how they fit their communities. It also signals Park Square’s need and willingness to strive to serve a broader audience and offer a variety of viewpoints.

Cardboard Piano at Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN - 2018 - Two hands claspingHow did a play by a South Korean playwright in America that’s set in Northern Uganda land in St. Paul, Minnesota? A contingent of diehard supporters of Park Square Theatre attended its debut at the 2016 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and unanimously chose to bring Cardboard Piano to the Twin Cities.

Playwright Hansol Jung’s explanation about her play’s title itself captures how Cardboard Piano made its way to Park Square Theatre. According to Jung, “The title comes from a story told in the play. But it comes from a deeper idea of just the beauty of trying. When we do that we are usually wanting something in life that’s real and beautiful.” (Courier-Journal, March 18, 2016)

Artistic Director Richard Cook

Like the church that is the main setting for Cardboard Piano, Park Square Theatre was founded by white male visionaries to fulfill its mission “to enrich our community by producing and presenting exceptional live theatre that touches the heart, engages the mind, and delights the spirit.” Begun in 1975 at the Park Square Court Building in Lowertown and moving in 1997 to its present locale at the Historic Hamm Building in downtown Saint Paul, Park Square Theatre has traditionally served a predominantly white audience. Within the past decade, Artistic Director Richard Cook noticed the steadily growing diversity in Park Square’s  student audiences and understood its ramifications for the relevancy and viability of the organization into the future.

While student audiences at Park Square Theatre have grown in diversity, general audiences have not yet kept pace. But Park Square continues its commitment to broaden the scope of its repertoire of stories being told on stage with such offerings as Cardboard Piano, as well as to attract more POC artists into its fold to teach, advise and practice their art.

Jamil Jude

Key to accelerating this effort was Jamil Jude, a social justice-based artist who had moved to the Twin Cities in 2011 and is presently the Associate Artistic Director of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia. From December 2015 to June 2017, with funding from a grant, Jude served as Park Square Theatre’s first Artistic Programming Associate, generously sharing his wide network of POC artists to bring fresh talent and ideas to the theatre. Amongst the artists whom Jude had brought to Cook’s attention was Signe V. Harriday, an artist based in Minnesota and New York, who was asked to direct last season’s production of The House on Mango Street and returns to direct Cardboard Piano.

Signe V. Harriday

“The play, at its core, is asking questions about big ideas,” said Harriday of Cardboard Piano. “My work is to create the experience and the audience’s to digest it in whatever way they choose.  But the danger with this play is that it may be easy for audiences to say ‘This is a Uganda issue. We don’t behave that way here.’ The issues raised in this beautiful piece, though, can force us to face our culpability and connection.”

How the global, national, local and personal all interconnect will be further driven home through Park Square Theatre’s partnership with the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), an international nonprofit headquartered in Saint Paul, during the run of Cardboard Piano. The mutual benefit of “sharing the Square” with organizations for which the story of our plays connect with their missions originated with Jude as a creative means of community outreach.

As a community theatre with a social conscience, but staff and board members at different spectrums of cultural competency on issues of diversity, inclusion and equity, Park Square Theatre gamely paddles against strong social currents–both internal and external–with the hope of creating what will ultimately be real and beautiful.

 

Tickets and information for Cardboard Piano here

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