WASHINGTON, July 12, 2011 — During July and August, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), in picturesque Shepherdstown, WV, is offering “We Are Here” as one of its five productions.
“We Are Here” explores of grief, and what you’re reading is not a review. It’s an exploration of an exploration.
At a play, a larger group of people watches a smaller group of people present a made-up story. While all of them experience different and individual ratios of education and entertainment, the ultimate reason for attending a play is to experience truth—an emotional truth much more in your face than when you go to the movies.
You might roll on the floor LOL or quiver on the brink of tears, but when you’re at live theatre your inner self, seeking truth, will respond only to truth. That’s why you trekked out there in the first place.
Death and Grief On Stage
In a tragedy, death is usually the culminating event. Think of “Hamlet,” any of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, or of classic Greek tragedy. But how long does the grief part of tragedy last? A few minutes, perhaps as long as the chorus has lines to moan.
“We Are Here” presents a happy, musical family. Interracial marriage issues were resolved long ago. There are no money worries. The two sisters squabble, but their arguments are philosophical, habitual, and emotionally pointed enough to keep the audience attentive. The biggest issue the family faces is the new son-in-law’s reticence to sing along at the family’s regular musical evenings and his wife razzing him about it.
Until Eli, their baby, dies.
In theatre, death is usually what happens at the end. No matter how many times you’ve seen “Romeo and Juliet,” if the performance is truthful, their deaths can still shock you. As in most tragedies, their familes’ grief is the denouement—a few minutes of tidying up after the big event.
Death and Grief in Life
In real life, dying takes a few seconds or minutes—even years. Death itself takes only a moment. The grief exploding from that moment can last for decades, even for generations.
But grief doesn’t show. Nobody wears mourning anymore. Rings and other trinkets encasing an artful rendering of the deceased person’s hair are currently considered bizarre. Even photos gradually disappear from public view, occasionally ending up in antique stores to become other people’s instant ancestors.
Grief may not show, but it feels. It’s inside those who mourn.
At “We Are Here,” the stage is ground-level, with the audience seated in tiered rows around it. With each turn and twist in the plot, each song, each laughing or scowling or thoughtful conversation, each screaming argument, at last Saturday night’s performance you could see grief gradually creeping out of hiding places in the audience like shy wraiths.
As in the play, some of us talk to our dead loved ones, and some don’t. The children who are gone are loving, bright, and alert. At “We Are Here,” they came out when Eli spoke, in the quietly wiped-away tears of elderly mothers, from behind the backs of bereaved fathers as they straightened up in their chairs and took on the stern look of deep male mourning.
A Public Place for Private Grief
There’s no shortage of food, clothing, or shelter in this play. These people are happy, loving individuals enjoying every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. None of their privileges nor their altruism, gratitude, and intelligence protect them from grief, or from each other, because every personality encounters grief uniquely.
What’s rare about “We Are Here” (as indeed, alive or in spirit, we are all here) is that it’s one of very few events where grief, in its true, unadorned form, can be explored by a large group of people watching a small group of people present a made-up story.
And it’s not a tragedy.
Please comment on or share this article by clicking on one of the symbols above. Note: If you want a review, check out Terry’s Ponick’s (yes, we’re related) review of “We Are Here.”
(Main Photo Caption: Crystal Dickinson as Billie, Cary Donaldson as Hal, Barrington Walters, Jr. as Eli, Stacey Sargeant as Shawn, and Tamara Tunie as Vera. CATF 2011 Season (Image Ron Blunt)
Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and will soon be available online. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn. Read more about Stages of Grief in the Washington Times Communities.
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