The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray will echo from the walls of Pope Auditorium this year, as the Fordham theatre program stages four plays that focus on the abuse of power.
“A Season at the Mountaintop,” which takes as inspiration Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, opens with Kia Corthron’s Force Continuum on Oct. 8. It’ll be followed by Ji Junxiang’s The Orphan of Zhao, a joint production with the Ma-Yi Theater Company in November; The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy in February; and White People by J.T. Rogers in April.
Theatre program director Matthew Maguire said the unrest in Ferguson last year in the aftermath of the shooting death of Brown personally affected him, as his family hails from St. Louis. In workshops with students last year, the theme of police brutality also kept surfacing, so when it came time to pick four plays, Maguire decided to expand the conversation.
King’s speech, about a vision in which God has allowed him to scale a mountain to see the Promised Land that we will reach, with or without him, made an ideal starting point.
“It made sense to me that if we put together a season in which our community, our students, and the people in our neighborhood were putting up a different vision than one of violence— imagining a place in which everyone was included—then we might be able to make change,” he said.
Force Continuum opens the season with a story about the pressures, tensions, and tragedies that befall cops, black and white alike. The Orphan of Zhao, a classic play from the 13th century, is a story of revenge and the self-sacrifice needed to save the lone survivor of a clan that’s been massacred. The Owl Answers is a surreal exploration of identity that takes place in both the Tower of London and a New York City subway. And White People introduces audiences to three white characters who are all racist in their own individual ways.
White People in particular features characters that are difficult to deal with, said Maguire, and because it’s a three-member cast, the play will be double cast.
“There will be some people I suppose who will feel indicted (by this play), but all of us are somewhat racists to a degree. We’ve been terribly conditioned. It’s systemic,” Maguire said.
“Even if we’ve managed to get to the place where we’re aware of and are doing our best to overcome our individual bias, there’s still bias in the structures that we work in and live in that are difficult to overcome.”
Tough topics are nothing new to Fordham theatre; last season delved into the aftermath of war, and in 2013, the plays touched on homophobia, poverty, and class warfare. But Maguire said there are uplifting elements in this season’s plays, whether it’s the lyrical poetry of The Owl Answers or the revelation of a character in White People.
“No one will come to see our plays if it’s only painful therapy, so we embed that kind of process in work that’s highly entertaining, dramatic, and funny. It’s a very exciting season. These are all great stories,” he said.
“Theatre gives people a homeopathic dose of terror and pity so that when they leave the performance, they’re purged of those things. There are tragic events in each one of these plays, but there’s something that lifts from them, too.”
Maguire said racism is a major challenge facing Americans today. But he cited the hundredth monkey effect as reason for hope. In the story, a monkey living on an island accidentally drops a coconut in the water and decides it likes washed coconuts better. More monkeys follow suit, which causes division and threat on the island between those that wash theirs and those that do not.
But the number of washers rises, until 99 of them are washing their coconuts. One day, the 100th monkey washes his coconut.
“A season like this comes from faith in the hundredth monkey model .You just keep plugging away at it, and then change happens,” he said.” And one day it just is.”