One of the things that is so powerful about theater is that oftentimes classic works resonate in new and surprising ways when performed in a contemporary context.
For example, New York City’s Public Theater staged an interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last summer.
The play, which was written around 1599, is classified as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and is typically framed as a politically fraught cautionary tale about how violent decisions made to protect a republic can actually lead to its end. But when Public Theater performed the bloody play with an unmistakably Trump-like Caesar, national uproar — and a disapproving tweet from the president — followed.
In that instance, a nearly 420-year-old play was interpreted as something contemporary.
But Looking for Lilith, a local feminist theater company, is currently in the process of staging a play that was literally written to respond to today’s news, and as such, had to be rewritten multiple times.
Kathi E.B. Ellis — who, by way of disclosure, occasionally reviews dance performances for WFPL — directed the play “We. Are. Here.”
She said the play deals with the experiences of four families: that of a black assistant principal and her son; that of an El Salvadoran legal immigrant whose status gets compromised by changing policies, and her activist teen daughter; a Christian conservative family whose son “may be trying to be woke;” and a white teacher who has yet to come out to her father and is in a relationship with someone involved in an anti-fascist group.
“The inspiration in many ways was the election of 2016,” Ellis said. “Shortly thereafter, Looking for Lilith was having one of our country retreats and talking about the productions that we’re planning to do during this season and it became very clear that everyone in the company, for different reasons, was feeling the weight of how the country was shifting and changing in the wake of the election.”
Soon after, the company began a collaborative writing process — led by Jennifer Thalman Kepler — that resulted in the initial script for “We. Are. Here.”
“And right around the beginning of February we had lots of brilliant scenes and interesting relationships, and then Parkland happened,” Ellis said.
“And we had several intense, challenging conversations about if we don’t include something about this, our play will be neither ‘here’ nor ‘now’ because, and I would say this is from almost any perspective through which you are looking at these issues, things have changed since Feb. 14, 2018.”
In the months that followed, the company has continued to adapt the play to reflect other major contemporary events — the #MeToo movement, increased attention on youth activism and shifting immigration statuses — which Ellis said affects the cast in ways that are perhaps different than when performing older work.
“Last week there was the huge ICE raid in Ohio, which hit some of our actors really, really hard,” Ellis said. “And it hit the whole rehearsal process really, really hard because something that we are writing about that is grounded in reality, but we’ve dramatized and fictionalized it, isn’t just putting on a play.”
And, Ellis said, she and the cast are prepared to make any additional changes to the script.
“The way that we’ve constructed the last scene, I’ve told the actors, maybe some of the lines will change if something happens before June 24, which is our final performance,” Ellis said.
“We. Are. Here.” runs June 15, 16, 22, 23 and 24 at the Mex Theater at The Kentucky Center. More information is available here.