Last Saturday, Staff Writer Samantha Seiff had the opportunity to view the Barnard Theatre Department’s virtual production On Loop, written by Charly Evon Simpson and directed by Professor Alice Reagan.
I’m not sure what I had expected to see when I clicked the Zoom link to the Barnard Theatre Department’s spring mainstage show, On Loop.
That being said, I was completely floored when greeted with the image of two actors standing upon the fully-dressed stage of the Minor Latham Playhouse. For better or worse, I’ve become accustomed to the “Zoom plays” that will undoubtedly become relics of this pandemic theater season. Thus, I was stunned to discover that this commissioned production of Charly Evon Simpson’s play broke the virtual theater mold.
And I couldn’t have been giddier about this divergence. To see actors not in adjacent Zoom squares, but instead gathered together, onstage offered me the first glimpse of theatrical normalcy since the onset of COVID-19 last March. Assistant Director Madison Hatchett, BC ‘22, and Dramaturg Kate Purdum, BC ‘22, reflect on this in the playbill:
“Many of us have been able to be in the room with one another, creating work in a tangible, three-dimensional space for the first time in a year. The significance of what we have been working towards—a new kind of theatrical production to reflect and respond to our current moment—has not been lost on us.”
The gravity of this semi-live performance medium was not lost on me as an audience member, either. Though I’d never claim to be any kind of authority on social-distancing guidelines, this production seemed to check all the safety-protocol boxes. Actors were rarely (if ever) within six feet of each other, and were perceptibly masked at all times.
Now, to discuss the actual contents of this wonderful production a bit. The set was every bit as striking and annular as the play itself. Wooden chairs, benches, and desks adorned the stage, seemingly in a concentric circular pattern. A scroll-like curtain decorated in tree silhouettes curved around the stage’s perimeter, eventually swirling into a kind of conic chandelier suspended above the set.
These circular features seem intended to call on the play’s titular idiom. The Barnard Theatre Department website offers a brief synopsis of On Loop saying “Jo [portrayed by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, CC ‘21], a young Black woman, seeks her past and future in the spiraling rings of tall trees and waving grasses[,] question[ing] whether the woods are a place of solitude and safety or menace and danger.”
Thus, the audience is likely intended to understand the recurring imagery of “ZZ” plants, decorative foliage, and human-esque trees as contributing to the play’s verdant conceit: we all seem to journey back to/through the woods from which we originated.
Perhaps this sentiment is most explicitly expressed by the Forest Ranger, portrayed by Surya Buddharaju, CC ‘23. The character explains to Jo that “we follow the path, we do the loop, we summit the mountain, [and] you get somewhere hopefully.”
At the play’s start, we see Jo, too, at the beginning of her journey. The character sports a pink jacket, yellow tie-dyed top, black shorts, and hiking boots. This play’s beginning is darkened by what seems to be the end/death of “Grammie,” portrayed by Asha Futterman, BC ‘21. The ensemble cast surrounds Jo in a swarm of black umbrellas, muttering phrases like “may she rest in peace” and “I’m sorry.”
Grammie was the sole character not physically represented onstage. Rather, Futterman’s live image was projected onto the scroll-like set, which only bolstered the character’s seemingly intentional air of absent-presence.
As On Loop progresses, Jo graduates from childhood to early adulthood. DiMaggio-Potter skillfully inhabited all stages of Jo’s development, demonstrating a childlike aloofness in the play’s early scenes.
A favorite moment of mine was when Jo and Mink, charmingly portrayed by Theo Elfaizy-Phillips, CC ‘24, shared a scripted kiss. While both actors remained masked several feet apart, stage directions read aloud indicated this act. (“Mink leans in for a kiss.” “Jo kisses me.”) Perhaps the recitation of stage directions was a directorial decision employed to circumvent the physical barriers posed by social-distancing guidelines. But whatever the cause, the execution was amusing and seemed appropriate considering the stylistically-forthright dialogue of Simpson’s play.
This tender scene quickly unravels as Jo returns home to her mother, portrayed by Daniela Mays-Sanchez, BC ‘24. “Mom” reminds Jo that “things that happen in the woods can be hidden, misconstrued, [and that] Mink”—who, in the script, is identified as a White male—doesn’t have to worry about this.” Mom goes on to exclaim that “they used to hang us up on trees.” Soon after this haunting moment, the stage darkened. Mom asks the image of Grammie, “what happened?” Jo looks to her mother, repeating this question. Mom explains, “there was a…” but does not finish her sentence.
In this play where characters constantly struggle to externalize their thoughts, that this unnamed deed was an act of racial violence perpetrated against a Black person seems definite—especially when considering the context of this scene.
The play’s motif of breath and struggling to breathe also takes on an enhanced, racially-explicit significance when considering the events of last June. Hatchett and Purdum acknowledge in their note that “On Loop [is] a piece commissioned and conceptualized long before anyone could have predicted how different the world would be upon [the play’s] opening.” The pair also explains that On Loop “is a show written by a Black playwright focusing on a Black woman finding her breath, and as such, we must acknowledge what breath means in a time of racial injustice, Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. ‘I can’t breathe’ has become permanently etched in our consciousness over the last year and settles under the bones of this play.”
Thus, Jo navigates the forest (and, allegorically, her life) with a keen sense of external awareness. Her calling upon audience members to “take a deep breath with [her]” seems piquant in the inescapable context of our contemporary political landscape.
Another favorite moment of mine was the first interaction of Jo and her college roommate, Lena portrayed by Rivka Keshen, BC ‘22. “I don’t think we should be roommates,” Lena declares within moments of meeting Jo. The two college students proceed to have a shockingly open conversation, in which they discuss first-year jitters and ask each other questions as intimate as they are innocent. Keshen seems to be a particularly grounded actor, and her earnest demeanor contrasts beautifully with DiMaggio-Potter’s lighthearted portrayal of Jo.
The show’s chorus—composed of Gigi Silla, BC ‘24, and Blessing Utomi, CC ‘22, (who also served as the show’s Movement Captain)—created dramatic onstage tableaux, mimicking the silhouettes and movements of trees throughout the piece.
Towards the end of the hour-and-a-half-long show, the entire cast filters onstage. Conversation ensues about celebration, and “reaching the top—the end of the trail.” Characters discuss the concept of “Waldeinsamkeit,” an untranslatable German word that roughly means “forest loneliness”— or “a joyful alone, a connected alone.”
I think that I felt something akin to this “connected alone” at the play’s close, when I was rather unceremoniously booted from the Zoom call. I am used to experiencing theater alongside others, yet after having this miraculously-connected experience on Saturday afternoon, I somehow found myself alone at my kitchen table, staring at an empty laptop screen.
However, this wonderful play has reminded me that we will inevitably return to the things we know and love. This production of On Loop—in all its semi-live, semi-virtual splendor—stands as proof that we are at least progressing on our path to somewhere, in all this madness. I offer an immense congratulations to all involved in this trailblazing project.
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