Rogue Machine and Collaborative Artists Bloc first presented their American Saga Gunshot Medley: Part I during their 2018 season but now through August 11, 2019, they have revived the production as part of their residency at the Electric Lodge in Venice, CA. Written by Dionna Michelle Daniel and Directed by Desean Kevin Terry, the revival is presented again by Rogue Machine (a Los Angeles based theatre company founded in 2008 who has won multiple critics choice and Ovation Awards) and Collaborative Artists Bloc (an acting company dedicated to discovering new plays and telling the stories that American history has either overlooked or forgotten, with a focus on humanity and social change). The Electric Lodge is a venue with a mission to hosting artists, teachers, and community events while acting as an environmental steward in Venice.
Music greets as you walk into the theatre with Garrett Lofgren on the Bass, Anna Mat on the Violin and Ann Polednak on the Banjo plucking at our nostalgic heartstrings with their lovely renditions of American folk songs. The High Priestess of Souls (Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield) is already on stage and appears to almost float in a flowing red gown in the Southern Belle style. The setting is the Hereafter and the set design by Priti Donde works so beautifully with the lighting design by Matt Richter with both being expanded by the sound design by Jeff Gardner that it’s difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. The overall effect is that we are walking into a different world in a different time and it is so successful, you start to relax into it – that is if you are open to it, and friends, if there was ever a play that demanded we be open and actively listening, this is the one. If you aren’t and you don’t, you are going to miss something sorrowful and true.
We are warned that we will hear gunshots in the play but nothing prepares you for how those shots are implemented. Mildred Marie Langford plays Betty, a young woman in a stained cotton dress who does not see or hear the humming of the High Priestess. She hears the wind, and almost seems to lose herself in the sound – then a shot rings out and she reacts as if hit in the gut. This shot rings out multiple times throughout the play and every time, Betty physically reacts and utters a gasp of pain. She drops to her knees and frantically starts scrubbing the wood porch/floor outside the shack. This is her role in this place with no time and no changes. She is torn between a longing to remember and the need to forget and she is aware of the impact memory has on the only other figures in her world – Alvis, and George.
Derek Jackson is Alvis, a young man who tends to dig up objects out in the yard [we eventually get that means graveyard] then abandon his post out there to come to beg Betty to clean them. The first object is a toy gun. What happened to Alvis in life is so traumatic, Betty does all she can to help him avoid recalling it. Donathan Walters is George, the dominant figure in the group. He waits for Alvis to leave before he tells Betty that he’s quitting his post. He’s heard the wind singing and longs to dream and float away with her – he leaves Betty alone. Stubblefied gives voice to the wind and to songs that prompt Betty to remember she once had a child and she folds up her scrubbing cloth to cradle it. As she speaks to her baby, Betty says “I got to learn how to craft a bulletproof child, a warrior child. Baby, they using your skin for target practice but you are magic in my eyes.”
With George gone, Alvis returns with a Skittles wrapper and begs Betty to clean it. When she does, just as she did with the gun, she sees something that makes her stop and order Alvis to bury it again. Undeterred, Alvis shares one of the new songs he’s heard from an ‘automatic carriage’ that passed his post and that’s when we all had to recognize that Derek Jackson is a dancer with the grace and dexterity of the Nicholas Brothers, the physical comedic sensibilities of a Charlie Chaplin and a beautiful singing voice to match both. George returns, dressed all in black with a beret, leather jacket, and a heavy heart. He went back to the world and tried to talk of change but “days turned to months and months drifted into years and people were listenin’ but no one actually heard what I was sayin’.”
To say that Donathan Walters has the charismatic presence of a born leader is to understate exactly how powerful his work is in this role. He goes back, floating on the wind and Betty is left to remember her lost child alone again. Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield’s singing voice is warm and elegant and she is masterful in her ability to relate emotion through a single breath. Though her songs are beautiful and Alvis’ demeanor is relentlessly positive as he processes the things he digs up and the new music he hears, they are stuck and on their own without George to balance them and so it is inevitable that all of the pain and suffering Betty and Alvis experienced will eventually come back to them. It starts to build when Alvis brings the third object he found in the yard – a confederate flag. “Just look at it!”, he begs her, “It’s brand new. A little dirty, but it’s not stained… Dixie ain’t ever been dead. This whole country is Dixie.”
Even if I described every beat that follows, none of those words would do justice to the performances from these four actors. What follows as Alvis remembers everything is just as hard to put into words as it is to watch it unfold but watch it you must. At least one white woman in the audience across the row and behind me seemed incapable of sitting still – she checked her watch, crossed her legs, shifted her weight, her gaze never really focused on the characters in front of her. It’s hard to imagine that director Desean Kevin Terry didn’t anticipate this for when George comes back dressed in a modern-day suit he, he walks into the aisle and addresses the audience directly, delivering a speech that has the power to set the world on fire. Alvis appears dressed in modern clothes, jeans and a dark hoodie, holding a bloody American flag. Betty desperately focuses on her scrubbing but no matter how hard she scrubs, the Confederate flag that appears on the wooden floor will not go away and she finds name after name of black men and women who have been murdered on the objects that Alvis has brought her to clean. It is harrowing to listen to her. It’s not a pretty history that we have and it’s not something that anyone who is not black in this country is going to even begin to understand. “I know you don’t hear me.”, George says, “But at least you’re listening. At least you’re listening.”
With work like this out there available for audiences to see, there is no excuse not to.
Produced by John Perrin Flynn and Cristian Kreckler. The play is also produced by Tarina Pouncy, Damali Navarro, William J. Baker and Quonta Beasley. John Perrin Flynn is the Artistic Director of Rogue Machine Theatre. Kelana Richard is the Producer/Assistant Director. Costume Design by Wendell C. Carmichael. Choreography by Christopher Eclipse. The Dramaturg/Producer is Ariane Helou. Outreach Coordinator is Lysa Myles. Key Art Design by Cristian Kreckler. The Rogue Machine Production Manager is Amanda Bierbauer. The Rogue Machine Technical Director is David Mauer. Calvin L. Blake III is the Musical Director. Michelle Hanzelova is the Stage Manager.
A Special American Saga Revival of – Gunshot Medley: Part I has performances in July on Friday 12th and 26th at 8pm; Saturday 6th, 13th and 20th at 5pm and Saturday 27th at 8pm; Sunday 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th at 7pm. In August on Friday 2nd and 9th at 8pm; Saturday 3rd and 10th at 8pm; Sunday 4th and 11th at 3pm. The Electric Lodge is located at 1416 Electric Ave, Venice, CA 90291. Reservations: 855-585-5185 or at www.roguemachinetheatre.com
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.