There aren’t that many new plays produced professionally in Philadelphia each year; few of these are by local playwrights. So it was a happy coincidence that two shows by Philadelphia writer Mary Tuomanen opened on consecutive nights last week, providing a singular opportunity to assess common threads tying together works by the author.
InterAct Theatre Company’s world premiere of MARCUS/EMMA, running at the Drake Theatre through February 12, 2017, is the more conventionally theatrical yet ambitious of the two. Directed by Rebecca Wright, the two-person piece draws from the biographies of entrepreneurial African American political leader Marcus Garvey (Akeem Davis) and feminist anarchist Emma Goldman (Susan Riley Stevens). Tuomanen enmeshes the early 20th-century activists in a fictionalized sexual relationship which deftly explores power dynamics and intersectionality.
Whereas Goldman’s “simple demands” run only that “everyone love each other” and that capitalism be dismantled, Garvey built an empowering black-run capitalist empire. “I feel more like a tool of the system when I’m shining shoes than when I’m running an ocean liner,” he says.
In Tuomanen’s treatment, Goldman’s radicalism often manifests merely as hyper-sexual free love. “Let’s fuck,” she says. “Solidarity is sexy.” For Tuomanen, the pair’s sexual encounters provide a metaphor for relationships between their social movements. With each sexual tryst, power switches hands. So like sex that only pleases one partner, Goldman’s hoped for proletarian uprising would steal Garvey’s black anger, Garvey’s lust for power subjugates Goldman’s femininity.
How can the pair understand each other’s needs? How can disparate movements work together for common gains? How can they fuck well? Love each other, even.
Similar issues are evident in Tuomanen’s solo piece, HELLO! SADNESS!, which premiered last year at the Kimmel Center and was reworked January 26-28, 2017, at FringeArts, under the direction of choreographer Annie Wilson. The title references Françoise Sagan’s 1954 novel Bonjour Tristesse, made into a 1958 film starring American Jean Seberg. Sagan and Seberg become two of the characters who join Tuomanen on an imaginative journey fueled by her smart humor, charismatic narration, and enticingly intelligent contemplations.
If MARCUS/EMMA tackles the conflicting aims of and complex interplay between related social movements, HELLO! SADNESS! queries how art, and individuals, can take social action at all. On the one hand, we can feel crippled with indecision and inaction in the face of endemic inequality, racism, sexism, Trump, etc. On the other, the fight against injustice faces authoritarian head winds and requires the determined fury of youth.
Fittingly, Tuomanen gives our irresolution a powerful voice through the words of Hamlet, a role she has tackled at least once. (She assesses the text with apt vacillation as a “terrible play” by a dead white man, yet so well written no actor can hope to capture its insight.)
She contrasts the Dane’s inaction with the examples of French rebel-patriot Joan of Arc and Black Panther Fred Hampton. Both were willing to fight for their respective cause; both were killed for their struggle—Joan burned by her English captors in 1431, age 19, Hampton assassinated by the FBI and Chicago police in 1969, age 21.
Jean Seberg launched her career as the Joan of Arc in the 1957 cinematic version of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Tuomanen had also visited the Maid of Orleans in her “utterly remarkable” 2013 Fringe show Saint Joan, Betrayed, which showcased the charismatic creativity and gift for storytelling evident in both current shows.
In HELLO! SADNESS! the playwright carries the audience by herself, with direct address and humorous portrayals of Seberg, Sagan, Joan, the curator of the Jean d’Arc Museum in Rouen, France. Maria Shaplin, who also lights the InterAct show, adds depth with projections from French New Wave movies and historical photographs.
MARCUS/EMMA developed based on conversations between actor Akeem Davis and Tuomanen. In displays of skillfully controlled passion and aggression, both Davis and Susan Riley Stevens find a powerful vehicle for their talents. The piece lacks the humor of Tuomanen’s solo work and could be seen as reducing complex life stories and issues to sexual interplay. But it retains a tender empathy for its characters, and a skilled use of historical figures to weave a very contemporary story.
After the InterAct opening, I visited the political theater of dance-party protests outside the Republican retreat on Market Street. “Black lives matter,” the mostly white, majority female crowd chanted. “This is what democracy looks like.” The next morning, I sat in a diner as a diverse group of bike cops getting presidential-visit overtime shared and laughed like teenagers at videos of protesters being arrested.
I eat my bacon grilled cheese and listen; Mary Tuomanen has gone beyond Hamlet’s irresolute “words, words, words.” She’s crafted two intelligent, compelling considerations of relevant issues and brought them beyond the didactic vagueness of “shitty political theater” to the intimate specificity of tenderly drawn real figures—Marcus, Emma, Joan, and all. We can look forward to her next work, Peaceable Kingdom, running this March in a production by playwright collective Orbiter 3.
HELLO! SADNESS! [FringeArts at 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] January 26-28, 2017; fringearts.com.