Saturday, September 23, 2023

"Passage" by Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre

Two theater companies are joining forces to bring us Passage by Christopher Chen, loosely based on the 1924 novel A Passage to India. The central question is: is it possible for two people to be friends when one is a citizen of a colonized country and the other is one of the colonizers? Colonization has been a part of world history for hundreds, even thousands, of years, but awareness and discussion of its injustices has never been at a higher level. This play puts a human face on the sometimes abstract issue, and places the audience squarely in the shoes of both the colonized and the colonizers. For more on how this collaboration between Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre came to be, listen to episode 2.3 of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat, in which my blogger friends from Minnesota Theater Love and I interview the co-directors of this piece, longtime friends and synchronized swimming teammates Signe V. Harriday (Pillsbury House's Artistic Director) and Suzy Messerole (co-Artistic Director of Exposed Brick). Then get your tickets and head to "the jewel of South Minneapolis" to see this thought-provoking and engaging play.

The playwright has taken the story out of India and set it in an unnamed country, referred to as Country X, which is currently colonized by Country Y. Which means that it could be anywhere, at any time in history. The characters are also referred to by letters, which means any one of them could be any one of us. A group of friends from Country X discuss the question of friendship between a Country X-er and a County Y-er, with some coming down on either side of the argument. The theoretical question is put to the test when a successful Country X doctor becomes friendly with a couple of Country Y-ers, goes on a trip to the local caves, and is falsely accused of a crime. Things get real, and perspectives shift, as that friendship seems next to impossible. We're not shown the resolution of the events, but left to ponder the ideas ourselves.

the cast of Passage (photo courtesy of the theaters)
A really neat and unique feature of this play is that it starts out with the talented cast (Aamera Siddiqui, Alex Hathaway, Antonio Rios-Luna, Clay Man Soo, James A. Williams aka J Dub, Marisa B. Tejeda, Oogie Push, and Valencia Proctor) introducing themselves, where they're from, and where they live. Things start off casually, so we feel like we know them a little before they get into character and begin the story. Then about halfway through the 110-minute intermission-less play, we take a little break and the incomparable J Dub (from whence comes the above quote about PHT being "the jewel of South Minneapolis") checks in to see how we're feeling. This makes it feel like we're all in this together, increasing that feeling of community and communion often present in theater. But once the story starts, the cast is all in, and they're all so believable in telling this story (some of them playing multiple characters). As Suzy and Signe told us in the podcast, they intentionally cast all actors of color, to remove race from the equation, since historically predominantly White countries have been the colonizers. They wanted to remove those expected assumptions, and it works.

photo courtesy of the theaters
The seemingly sparse and simple set opens to reveal more details, with the wide central arch splitting into two huge doors that open into the space Multi-level platforms on either side contain drawers and compartments in which props and set pieces are stashed. A large platform, folding chairs, and benches are moved around to create different spaces, everything in muted shades of gray. The cast is dressed in neutral tunics and pants, over which jackets, vests, or other pieces are added. I asked in the podcast interview how we would be able to tell Country X from Country Y, if some actors are playing multiple characters and moving back and forth. I needn't have worried; the color schemes of the costumes (blues for X, reds for Y) make that clear. Also, Country X people occasionally use hand gestures for certain words, subtly alluding to the fact that maybe they speak a different language than Country Y. (Scenic design by Mina Kinukawa, costume design by Sonya Berlovitz.)

Exposed Brick is a relatively new theater for me, but I've been attending shows at Pillsbury House + Theatre for years (if you're curious what that + means, listen to our podcast!). Two things I love about them: their work is always meaningful and deals with important and relevant issues, but is still compelling and entertaining theater. And they have the best talk-backs in town, with representatives from related community organizations involved so that the discussion is about more than just the play, but how it relates to our world. I encourage you to see the show on talk-back days - Oct. 1 (Million Artist Movement), Oct. 6 (The Native Youth Arts Collective), or Oct. 13 (AshaUSA).

Passage continues Thursdays through Sundays until October 15 (note the 7pm start time for evening performances).