Stagestruck: Art as Activism – Creative tactics at KO Festival

The KO Festival of Performance opened last weekend, kicking off a diverse five-week season clustered around the theme “Tactics for Trying Times.” First up was Jimmy & Lorraine, written by Talvin Wilks and developed with Hartford’s HartBeat Ensemble. The playwright describes his scrapbook drama as a “dramatic reflection” and “a type of mashup,” culled from the writings and correspondence of two great African-American artist/activists: James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry.

Framed by a sequence of intimate chats fueled by cigarettes and whiskey, the piece explores both figures’ political and personal lives, as outspoken agitators for racial equality and dignity as well as gay artists in pre-Stonewall America. (Baldwin was unabashedly out, but Hansberry, married to a white man, kept her passion for women secret.)

It begins in the late 1950s, with Baldwin’s transgressive (for its time) novel Giovanni’s Room, about a torrid homosexual affair in Paris, and Hansberry’s boundary-breaking Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun – a black woman storming the Great White Way – and ends with her tragically early death in 1965.

At its core is the legendary 1963 meeting known as The Summit, when a roomful of African-American leaders gave Attorney General Robert Kennedy an earful, challenging him to make civil rights a presidential priority. The multi-voiced fugue of shifting perspectives is a brilliant reconstruction of that electrifying moment in which black aspirations, frustrations and rage spoke truth to power – and then, in some cases, pulled back.

Maruti Evans’ minimalist set, starkly lit by Robyn Joyce, was furnished with movable white blocks and flanked by a pair of manual typewriters. Louvered blinds at the back served as a screen for video projections designed by Andrew Reardon – abstract curls of smoke and rippling water giving way to brutal Civil Rights-era news footage.

Jimmy & Lorraine was performed by an exhilarating trio: Chinaza Uche and Vanessa Butler in the title roles, and Neal Moeller, who plays everyone from Hansberry’s husband to Baldwin’s lovers to Norman Mailer. In the postshow talkback last Saturday he described his multitasking role as “the token white guy,” pointing out what a rarity that is on the American stage.

This Friday-Sunday at KO, Sara Juli’s Tense Vagina explores a variety of tactics for the “trying times” of new motherhood, which range from monotony and loneliness to incontinence to dildos. The show is subtitled “An Actual Diagnosis” – that is, of motherhood’s “beauty, challenges, isolation, comedy, and influence on the human experience.” The hour-long solo piece “uses humor, movement, sounds, songs, text and audience participation to reveal ‘all that is awesome and all that sucks’ when it comes to being a mother.” (There’s free childcare at the 4 p.m. Sunday performance).

On July 22 comes KO’s annual Story Slam, which invites community members to perform their own true trying-times stories. And the next day there’s the perennial visit from the Mettawee River Theatre Company with their brand-new all-ages performance, Before the Sun and Moon. It’s based on an ancient Korean folktale and incorporates “an array of giant figures, puppets and masks,” performed “under the stars in a landscape permeated with live music, song and a spirit of celebration.”

Tense Vagina photo by Kristofer Alan Thompson
Jimmy & Lorraine photos courtesy of HartBeat Ensemble

Chris Rohmann is at and

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