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This 13th annual festival speaks to issues we're all talking about right now
If you're looking to take the pulse of our world as we collectively kick off a tumultuous new year, go see a show at Under the Radar. The diverse, international lineup of the Public Theater's annual festival explores a host of hot-button topics -- espionage, Black Lives Matter, gender fluidity, the fight for freedom -- in performances that frequently push the boundaries of what we call theatre. Not that founder Mark Russell, former artistic director of avant-garde incubator PS 122, conceived it as a political event; it just seems to be the way it shook out this edition.
"It was very interesting trying to curate this festival because I was preparing for a different reality," Russell says, referring to the presidential election which took place after he had finished programming. "Then to have this come crushing down, especially on our particular community. I looked back at what we had allowed in and there's a lot that resonates right now. The Belarus Free Theatre [whose founders are in exile while the cast performs underground in their homeland]; what Keith [A. Wallace] is addressing in The Bitter Game, one of the best Black Lives Matter pieces that I have seen; Top Secret International (State 1), about how spying and counterintelligence exist around the world -- Edward Snowden's in it for god's sake! Even some of the shows that are not so directly talking to it but are telling wider stories, like Manual Cinema's coming-of-age tale Lula del Ray, they're all going to have a lot of poignancy with what we're going through."
In addition to their political undertones, many of the works in this year's Under the Radar are intensely personal, like Marga Gomez's latest solo work about her father and his legacy; trans playwright/performer Becca Blackwell's exploration of gender identity; and Wallace's aforementioned The Bitter Game, dually inspired by the epidemic of unarmed African Americans being killed by police as well as conversations with his mother about how to stay safe in a systemically racist society.
A self-described "actorvist", Wallace was commissioned to create The Bitter Game for La Jolla Playhouse's site-specific Without Walls Festival in 2015. "I was a student at UC San Diego in my second year of the MFA program, and the Playhouse had a call for submissions," he recalls. "I pitched directing Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size. But the Old Globe, the other major regional theatre in San Diego, had just produced the show like two years prior, so Christopher Ashley [the artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse] had concerns about doing it again. This was at the height of the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore, and I was feeling really guilty because I was in school, sequestered away and disconnected from the things that were happening. We got into a conversation about why theatre is important, and what theatre should be saying about the racial divide at this time in our country. From that meeting, Chris offered me a festival slot to create a solo work that related to all the things we discussed."
As Wallace started to develop the play, it turned into "a semi-autobiographical expression of being raised in North Philly, what that inner-city experience was for me, my own personal fears about how excessive police force affects my community, and how it would affect my family if I were a victim" he says. Wallace and his director, Deborah Stein, initially staged The Bitter Game as an immersive, promenade-style piece on an outdoor basketball court because "it's where lots of community activities happen: fairs, games, and tournaments, and a place where undesirable things happen, too: shootings, violence, and drug dealing," he says. "Growing up I experienced a lot of troubling things, but there was also a sense of togetherness."
Of course January in New York City is not the season for outdoor theatre, and after Russell searched in vain for a school gymnasium to host The Bitter Game, the show had to be reconceived to work in a more traditional indoor space. "We decided to go to the Anspacher, which is more of a thrust theatre, but it's very intimate and there will be some audience participation involved, that feeling like they're at the basketball court," Russell says. In fact, the basketball metaphor is baked into the structure of the piece, which is presented in four quarters with an overtime segment as a mother instructs her son on how to behave as a black man to appear non-threatening. "She's using rules of basketball for rules of engagement in life," Wallace says.
Wallace initially wrote the piece with the deaths of Freddie Gray and, especially, fellow Philadelphian Brandon Tate-Brown, in mind. However, as the list of victims of color of police violence grows, he keeps incorporating aspects of additional tragedies into the narrative. "I'm looking at the play as a living, breathing document that's continually evolving," he says. "I do my due diligence as a theatre practitioner, a citizen of the world; I continue to be in conversation with what's happening on a daily basis. The reason the play is necessary is this keeps happening. We need to keep rallying troops for the cause. Like when we were in San Diego staging the show at a graffiti park in 2016, Alfred Olango was murdered 20 miles away the week we were in tech. We had commissioned graffiti artists for a mural with the names of victims; we had to add Olango's."
But The Bitter Game isn't all bleak. "I wanted to highlight representations of blackness we don't see in the media, of joy, celebration, revelry, community," Wallace says. Russell seems to look at the entire Under the Radar fest in much the same way. "The festival needs to have a bit of joy in it, and I'm always trying to mix that in as well so we're not just going into the hard, hard parts of the world," he says. "We're celebrating our community, celebrating new theatre artists, and providing a really important place for people to gather. I think there will be a lot of discussions about how to proceed and what do we expect out of theatre right now."
Top image: Manual Cinema's Lula del Ray; photo by Jerry Shulman and Katherine Greenleaf.