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Posts Tagged Center for Victims of Torture

Cardboard Piano: Park Square Theatre’s Journey to Sharing Space

Breaking Character Magazine, a publication of Samuel French Inc., recently shared a report by Park Square Theatre’s Executive Director, Michael-jon Pease, regarding the company’s experience producing the play, Cardboard Piano, by Hansol Jung.

Our audience engagement with Hansol Jung’s beautiful play Cardboard Piano began with a dozen subscribers seeing the world premiere with us at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, KY. After the blistering first act, set in Uganda at the height of the terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army, they felt that Park Square Theatre had to premiere this play in the Twin Cities. “Our community needs this play,” they said.

As it turned out, we needed to produce it to further our journey toward greater inclusion.

From left: Adelin Phelps, Kiara Jackson, Ansa Akyea in Cardboard Piano. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

The play is indeed a unique offering for this time and for our place. The Twin Cities community is a sanctuary for refugees from many African nations and home to a startling number of nonprofits whose work in Africa encompasses everything from hunger relief and education to peace making and refugee services. Our key community partner for the artistic and engagement journey was The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), which works around the world healing those fleeing from trauma, including the child soldiers and persecuted LGBT Ugandans depicted in the play. They presented a pre-show talk on their work in Uganda and they promoted the play to their large constituent base of (mostly white, older) social justice champions, many of whom came more than once.

Most importantly, CVT sent two of their psychologists into the rehearsal hall to talk through the script with our artists and staff. They shared their deep knowledge of trauma on the magnitude these characters face. They pointed out what was not true to life, leading to rich discussion about the nature of art, dramatic tension and “truth.” Best of all, they confirmed that while their clients could not handle this play full of traumatic triggers, it needed to be produced. The community needed to see it.

CVT’s insights were woven into the design, direction and acting of the production and their psychologists were impressed and honored to see the result. A combination of light and sound cues, together with true to life physical “tells” from the actors immediately communicated to the audience the realities of trauma (ringing in the ears, hyper vigilance, etc.). The partnership contributed something essential and authentic to the production that it wouldn’t have had if we’d relied only on our own dramaturgical resources.

We all agreed that audiences would need to prepare themselves for the experience of the play. In addition to a deep content analysis on the website, the lobby had comment boards which invited audience members to respond to leading questions such as “What is the role of forgiveness in my life?” and to revisit their responses at intermission and end of play. Some of the post-it notes that stuck with me said,

“Forgiveness is about my personal liberation from the prison of living with resentment.”

“Forgiveness is pointless if the forgiven remains unchanged.”

“I forgive so I can be transformed.”

Wow.

We had conversations with our front of house staff and crew about ways to let audience members know they could leave if they needed to, and how to help them re-ground and rejoin the play.

For Park Square Theatre as a small traditional regional theatre led by white cis-gendered gay men, Cardboard Piano was also an important opportunity to explore how we share space with diverse artists and audiences. The questions of who owns space, who creates sanctuary and who can offer absolution are central to the play.

We chose Signe V. Harriday to lead the production, specifically to bring her world view as a queer artist of color to the process, as well as her mad directing skills. The action opens in a small missionary church in Uganda with the secret wedding of the white daughter of the missionary pastor and her African girlfriend. Harriday choreographed a playful, yet sensual opening scene between the two young women that allowed them to claim the space and unashamedly celebrate their love.

Having queer people of color own the room was amazingly affirming to many audience members, giving us survey comments like:

“I see a lot of theatre and it’s rare that I go to a show twice, but this one I came back to. As a Lesbian, it was wonderful to see myself represented on stage so authentically.”

“Representation is beautiful. Black stories are beautiful. Stories about cultures other than our own are beautiful. It was deeply moving, the performances flawless. Thank you for giving this story space. “

“It was a wonderfully well written and eloquent play that was executed very powerfully. It was a truth-telling and fully immersive experience, emotionally. This play was raw, and it was real. I went twice. Park Square should stage more works like this.”

Make no mistake, that ownership of spaceby someone other than the dominant culture, especially one as intimate as our 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage, was also a big turn off for some members of the mainstream audience who responded with comments like “I am growing weary of theatres thinking they need to keep presenting productions with gay/lesbian themes” to “Sexual scenes did not add to the play and may have demeaned it.” Many who saw the postcard with two women of different races embracing on the cover simply opted out from the start.

Our world premiere commission of Christina Ham’s Nina Simone: Four Women was another powerful experience of asking women of color to own the space. The show resonated with all audiences, but the affirmation about black resilience and black beauty for black audiences of all ages was palpable.

Our goal in building an additional stage was to expand our play selection and the range of artists and audiences who not only call Park Square home but think of it as “their” theatre. Aside from enabling our own productions to become a haven for diverse communities (new owners), another strategy we use to achieve this is to literally give the space over to diverse companies and artists for their own work through our Theatre in Residence program, “friendly rentals,” collaborations and co-productions with companies as diverse as Mu Performing Arts, New Native Theatre and Urban Spectrum. Along the way, we keep becoming more aware of who can and should “own” the room – from hiring professionals of color to moderate discussions with artists of color, to color conscious casting for our literary classics and having the welcome speech for our student matinees delivered by a person of color as often as possible for our teen audience of 32,000.

As a veteran executive director, it is a joy to recede from what can be the endless spotlight of organizational leadership to see the community take the stage in so many ways. Park Square – and the field – has much to learn about creating and sharing brave spaces. Plays like Cardboard Piano open us to exciting artistic and human lessons.

 

Originally Published in Breaking Character Magazine, April 16, 2018.

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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