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“Self-Doubt Is A Bitch-Ass White Man”: LORDES Resurrects Audre Lorde For The Stage

“For those of us who live at the shoreline…”
(Art by Anchuli Felicia King)

Last night, Bwogger and wannabe theatre critic Levi Cohen braved the chilly autumn night to get to the Lenfest Center for the Arts. His purpose? To watch the opening of the first thesis of the Directing MFA Class of 2019: LORDES, directed by Katherine Wilkinson, written by Wilkinson & Gethsemane Herron-Coward, and produced by Elana Boulos. The play runs through Saturday, October 20th, with two shows on its final day. Tickets can be found on the Lenfest Center’s website, and using the code AUDRE (+ a student ID) gets you one for free! Otherwise, they’re $15. All shows are currently sold out, but a wait list will begin each night at the Box Office 1 hour prior to curtain.

You enter. An usher gives the final warning that there will be no reentry if you exit the theatre. Over his shoulder you see a circle of women in red, seated around a writing-desk, staring outwards. Soon, a persistent drumbeat begins to thump. You examine your options- it’s a thrust stage, so you have three banks of seats from which to choose. Settling into your chair, you watch as the women each individually stand and peel off from that initial circle, situating themselves like pillars across the theatre space.

All that is the unforgettable first step into the world created by LORDES, MFA student Katherine Wilkinson’s Directing Thesis and the first thesis of the class of 2019. The work, by Wilkinson and Gethsemane Herron-Coward (Playwright MFA ‘19), began life as a devised piece last spring. Featuring a cast of over 40 women, it’s an impressionistic and impressive take on the final years and feelings of one of America’s major poets and activists.

Lauren Marissa Smith gives a stage-shaking performance as Audre Lorde. Remaining centerstage for the entirety of the play, Smith has nowhere to hide, but more than that no need to hide— every beat works to capture Lorde as both a character and the human being she was. When she coughs or falls, one seizes up in empathy; when she sits to write, one really does believe that she is penning, say, “A Litany For Survival” or The Cancer Journals. Simple actions, like the removal of a headscarf or the tearing of herbs, are charged with a depth of meaning that is genuinely breathtaking.

Kathryn Metzger is the poet Adrienne Rich, here only serving as Lorde’s interlocutor. Herron-Coward and Wilkinson’s writing for and Metzger’s performing of Rich imbue the character with humanity while also using her as a vehicle for the distinct brand of liberal, white feminism that demanded a great deal of emotional labor from Lorde. Renita Lewis steps out from the chorus reds to become Gloria Joseph, Lorde’s partner, who appears in just one heartbreaking scene. The character is startlingly lived in, full of believable gesture and emotion.

The crimson stage

The chorus, over 40-strong (the majority of whom are women of color), acts as both Lorde’s id and superego, expressing deep-seated emotions and becoming the crowds and expectations that dog her. LORDES‘ standout moments were the wonderful movement pieces and group soundscapes scattered throughout the piece. Choreographer Jill Vallery has crafted several exquisite movement pieces that whirl, hurricane-like, around Lorde, while composer Aviva Jaye and Music Director Emily Erickson build some awe-inspiring walls of noise.

Herron-Coward and Wilkinson’s script is deeply poetically felt, and borders on the minimalistic at times. We watch Lorde go through her creative process, with quotations from some works; mostly we listen to her as she struggles to parse her own feelings. Though affecting, the script on its own would be rather aimless, revealing its origins as a devised work. In the theatregoing experience, luckily, that means little. What we are treated to is a narrative of emotion rather than one of action– LORDES can be said to be as linear as any human life is, in that it stretches inexorably towards its subject’s death.

Continued_Relevance_Of_Lorde.jpg

Stacey Derosier’s lighting design contributes to the atmosphere onstage, with crisp blackouts and saturated colors becoming essential pieces of the narrative language. The use of a bare lightbulb directly above Lorde is a nice touch, if a little on-the-nose (it flickers in moments of doubt or illness!); unfortunately-focused floor-level sidelights made portions of the viewing experience from the side seatbanks somewhat unpleasant. Sound designer Caroline Eng works with cassette tapes and ambient noise to further flesh out the world. The scenic design by Sarah Nietfeld is bold and simply drawn, with the red circle whose epicenter Lorde does not leave being a particularly nice touch.

Wilkinson’s direction is wonderful throughout, dealing with Lorde’s pain and thought on embodied (Smith’s performance) and disembodied (the chorus) levels. At times the stage is clogged with choral bodies; at times it is empty save for Lorde; at times the chorus moves with such machinelike precision that you could believe that you are looking at a massive timekeeping device. Each stage picture is familiar yet surprising, memorable, and beautiful.

All I can say further is a note of congratulations to Wilkinson for a commendable thesis, and a note to the reader: go see this show! Even though tickets are currently sold out, you really ought to try for the Wait List. Immerse yourself for 70 minutes (quick runtime!) in the life and emotions of one of the major figures of latter-day American letters; support an incredible team of female artists; and have a good time at the theatre.

Art by Anchuli Felicia King via the On Stage Facebook Page.
Photo by Levi Cohen.
Protest sign by S Pakhrin via Wikimedia Commons.

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