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Streaming Plays Bring Diverse Perspectives in Playhouse Series

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

With audiences confined by winter weather and further isolated by the resurgent Covid pandemic, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse could hardly have chosen a better time for its weeklong festival of online theatre, the 12 x ’20 Play Project.

Streaming for free through Jan. 16 on the playhouse website and YouTube channel, each of the 12 play readings opens a 20-minute window into a different American community, offering a cabin-fever-curing kaleidoscope of perspectives on 2020 through the eyes of a dozen very different playwrights.

Taking viewers month by month through that history-making year, the series begins with Vision 2020, a conversation between two former Chilmark Chocolates workers assessing their future after the chocolate shop has closed. The work of first-time Island playwright and longtime playhouse employee Laura Jahn, Vision 2020 is written and performed entirely by Islanders with invisible disabilities. Cast members Ida Bailey and Ally Johnson (with Ms. Jahn appearing for Ms. Johnson in an alternative take also posted in the series) play Suki and Moon, whose shared bus ride leads to a series of reflections on what life holds for them after Chilmark Chocolates.

All three women are members of Virginia’s Drama Club, an improvisational theatre group co-sponsored by the playhouse and the Vineyard Independence Partnership.

Ms. Jahn’s dialogue for her characters lets mainstream viewers into the world of those who are usually judged by what they can’t do, instead of what they can.

“I’m scared,” confesses Suki, who cried her face paint off when she learned on Halloween that the chocolate shop would close.

“Do you understand what we just lost? That job was never just a part-time job for us. We had real jobs where we got paid. What we did mattered… Nothing can replace the life we had there.”

Reflecting a sunny optimism amid Suki’s gloom, the aptly-named Moon reassures her friend. “Someone will see your potential, Suki,” she says. “Even if you forget stuff sometimes, you’re so good at talking to customers. Anyone who knows you can see you care about getting things right.”

Moon, too, loved working at the chocolate shop. But she’s also interested in graduate school, she tells a skeptical Suki, who’s “just looking for a steady paycheck” while struggling in the dating world with men who infantilize her disability.

Despite the loss of the characters’ jobs and the dispersion of their community of fellow-workers, the play ends on an upbeat note as the two women decide to continue their conversation over lunch. “Our future is wide open, Suki. Let’s make this year something special,” Moon says as they disembark.

The next play in the series, Love It Or…, is by playwright and musician Mwalim (Morgan James Peters) a professor of English and Black Studies at the UMass Dartmouth and the distinguished playwright in residence at New African Company in Boston.

Taking place on the Barbados beachfront, the play centers on an American executive of Barbadian heritage who is considering a permanent move to his ancestral island. In conversation with his mother Enid, played by Nora Cole, and Barbadian cousin Nancy (Lynette R. Freeman) Alex (James T. Alfred) lays out his plan to leave the U.S. and “that feeling” of being watched and judged simply for having black skin.

Nancy welcomes the idea, telling her cousin he’s right to leave the country that has only become more racist under what she calles the “moron in chief.”

But Enid sees nothing really new in 2020 America.

“It’s the country it has always been,” she says. “Sometimes when it’s all you know, it doesn’t seem that bad.”

Alex wants more, finding in Barbados a community of people who look like him, without a trace of “that feeling” he’s found omnipresent in the U.S.

“America is the myth of opportunity,” Nancy tells him. “This is the real land of opportunity.”

Covid-19 also makes its first appearance in this play, as yet another reason for Alex to emigrate. Arriving in Barbados, he was tested at the airport for a spreading virus that in February 2020 had been barely acknowledged in the U.S.

The third play in the series, March 13, 2020 by Cassandra Medley, takes on both the coronavirus and the Breonna Taylor killing as a hospitalized woman named Clarise, played by Monique Edwards, reminisces and hallucinates in her bed.

Clarise’s daughter Sarah is played by Tsilala Brock, who has co-starred online in two playhouse productions of The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess. Ms. Freeman returns as the nurse.

All 12 play readings in the project were commissioned by the playhouse and directed in real time over Zoom by playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo.

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