By J.Stephen Brantley
Directed by Ari Laura Kreith
Produced by Theatre 167
Nominations: J.Stephen Brantley is nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role; J.Stephen Brantley is nominated for Outstanding Original Full-length Script; Joshua Benghiat is nominated for Outstanding Lighting Design; Janie Bullard is nominated for Outstanding Sound Design; the Ensemble (Adrian Baidoo, J.Stephen Brantley, Todd Flaherty, Flor De Liz Perez) is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble; and Pirira is nominated for Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play
Photos by Joel Weber
About this Production
As the African nation of Malawi erupts in riots around them, American aid workers Jack and Ericka take shelter in the storeroom of a struggling NGO. Half a world away, Malawian student Gilbert and his gay co-worker Chad begin their day in the back room of a Manhattan florist. By day’s end they discover their lives are inextricably linked across continents, language and time.
Director Ari Laura Kreith, Playwright and performer J.Stephen Brantley, Lighting Designer Joshua Benghiat and Cast members Adrian Baidoo, Todd Flahety and Flor De Liz Perez share their experience of working on this challenging production that dove into the scary world of hate during civil unrest and riots in Malawi.
What attracted you to this project?
Todd: What initially attracted me to this show was my friend J.Stephen Brantley who not only wrote the play, but also performed in it.
His use of language and his ability to discuss such challenging sociopolitical topics so that it still feels engaging, accessible, and relatable to the audience is unlike anything I've ever experienced. I knew I wanted to be a part of that magic.
J.Stephen: I spent a few years working with an NGO for the welfare of orphan and vulnerable children in the African nation of Malawi. It had a huge impact on my life, and on the kind of stories I wanted to tell as a playwright. I believe with all my heart that we are all connected to one another, on some level, even across the greatest of cultural and geographic divides. The opportunity to explore that concept onstage, and inform audiences of the challenges faced by the people of Malawi and the NGO's working there, was an immense blessing.
Adrian: The script! I'm always so fascinated with material that matches recognizable characters with unexpected stories -- I find that's when I learn the most. And this show had four! Each character felt like someone I knew, which made the play almost haunting when the emotional layers were pealed away and the wounds of these strong characters were finally exposed. The play opened me up to the idea of stereotype, and how pain and furthermore understanding, transcend it. I surely had to be a part of this show's message.
Flor: When approached by J.Stephen Brantley (playwright) to do a workshop of Pirira, I jumped at the chance. I greatly admire Ari Laura Kreith (director) and J.Stephen, with whom I've collaborated on past Theatre 167 productions. The script J.Stephen had written was one of incredible heart, humor and depth. I knew I wanted to be a part of telling this story, of creating this world, of walking in Ericka's [my character] shoes...I felt that people who would come see this show would be challenged and moved to think about our world a little differently.
Joshua: This play was about two pairs of people, each of whom become trapped in a shared space for the passage of the play. Being in an intimate theater space allowed the audience to share the experience of the play with the characters.
Ari: Oh my goodness, so many things! I'm drawn to art that explores issues of social responsibility, and this piece does that from so many different angles at once. It looks not only at our human interconnectedness and our responsibility to one another, but also at the complexities of being of service to another person or community. And J.Stephen and I have worked together on multiple projects at this point -- and I have a deep trust that whatever happens when we get into a rehearsal room together is going to be something that speaks to me.
What was your favorite part of working on this production?
Todd: The ensemble nature of this piece was by far the most exciting thing to work on. Two couples inhabiting the same space while being thousands of miles and continents apart was tricky. Ari Laura Kreith's imaginative conception of the staging and her ability to bring two worlds together into one room was something I wasn't sure would be possible after my initial reading of the script. So watching her weave the two pairs together filled me with excitement every day.
Adrian: Working with Ari Laura Kreith! She was our fearless director, and felt like the New York mother and friend I definitely needed during the process of this show. Like my character Gilbert, I was quite new to New York, and frankly, a little lost. Ari made me feel so at home in and out of rehearsal. Not once did I feel unheard or forced to do something I wasn't comfortable with in the show. She was truly intent on being a "director" and taking what the actors gave and finding the direction of the show from that. Instead of being a dictator, like so many directors can unintentionally (or intentionally) become.
Ari: It was deeply fulfilling to explore the lives of these complex characters, and to discover how these overlapping worlds came together onstage in ways that illuminated each of their individual journeys.
J.Stephen: When I began to work on Pirira, I did not know how any of the might hit the page, but I knew I wanted to explore it with Theatre 167's Ari Laura Kreith. Ari said yes to a play that no one else was going to touch. Both in style and in content, Pirira is hard to approach. But Ari says yes when others say no. She sees possibilities that others - including me - haven't even considered. Few playwrights ever get the opportunity to have a truly dedicated developmental process for their work. Having Ari Laura Kreith guide my play from seventeen pages to a full production was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
What was the most challenging part of working on this production?
Flor: It was a great challenge orchestrating two separate worlds in the same space--that of a back room in a flower shop in New York City and that of a storage room of an NGO in Lilongwe, Malawi. The timing of J.Stephen's writing is very specific, and so we had to get the rhythm of the lines intercutting between worlds, as well as the accompanying physical life, down to a tee. It was exciting to perform and a challenge to get down, which I loved.
J.Stephen: The play is constructed as two separate simultaneous scenes, set seven thousand miles apart, taking place in the same intimate performance space. The dialogue is interwoven in odd ways, and Ari's overlapping staging reflected that. It meant being in scenes with actors you had to hear, but never actually engage with. It was weird, and hard, and the role I played was an emotional rollercoaster. I have acted in my own plays before, but something about playing Jack was harder. For the first time, I found it impossible to wear both hats. Writing it was nothing compared to the challenge of acting it. There were performances that I honestly thought I couldn't finish, that I would have to leave the stage and walk away or else lose my mind forever.
Joshua: About half the story takes place in a blackout. We had to consider both how to provide enough illumination to read the actors as well as how darkness fits into the arc of the play: it enhanced opportunities for both intimacy and separation, and the characters' acclimation to each other followed the eye's acclimation to the darkness.
Todd: The most challenging part of the production was the ensemble nature of this show. Spending the entire length of the play working with three actors and only being able to interact with one. Making the audience believe you were unable to see the couple who was supposed to be on a different continent, all the while negotiating space, breath, and balance with their story and movements.
Adrian: Hate. My character dealt with a lot of hate in this show. As an actor you try to live your life in a manner that leaves you generally open to society and accepting of others. So when I was asked to find such a deep reservoir of hate, I struggled. Especially hatred for something that I'm actually in full support of. It took quite a bit of searching.
Ari: I think what was challenging was also exciting--we all came to this piece with a sense of rigor, a desire to live up to these characters and to the linguistic and technical demands of the play. There were two simultaneous storylines overlapping on a single stage--and it was exciting (and tricky!) to discover how to clearly tell the individual stories while allowing each to illuminate the other.
What was the most memorable part of this production for you?
Todd: If you didn't get a chance to see it, you really missed out. For me this list goes on and on...if I had to choose, I'd say pruning fresh cut roses and doing yoga on a table every night was a real hoot.
Adrian: I started this project four days after moving to NYC! Like my character, I was brand new to NYC
Flor: The ensemble truly melded together in a beautiful way. When we'd arrive at the theatre, it was always a treat to connect with Todd, Adrian, and J.Stephen (and our amazing stage manager Sydney!) and know that we were about to take a great ride together. We had a ritual of circling up that Ari instituted, which allowed us to create a safe and fun space for each other. We'd share one inspiring/challenging thing about our day, or something that we wanted to carry with us into the show that night. Once you get that foundation of trust down amongst an ensemble, you know you're free to risk it all emotionally as the script demands of you because your cast has your back. And of course the scene with the interwoven songs (Milkshake and Wachabe) was always a delight. We'd sometimes do that as a warm up! Oh, and I kept being reprimanded for stealing the Dubble Bubbles that come out on the table during the show. I have a sweet tooth! What!?
Ari: People with real-world experiences of the stories we were telling responded powerfully to the show. The former Malawian ambassador to the UN said "I felt like I was home." A doctor who had done HIV/AIDS work in Africa wept during his talkback at the memories that the play stirred. The founding director of Raising Malawi spoke about how honest and important the piece was. It was gratifying to know that the play felt truthful and resonated so deeply.
J.Stephen: Flor De Liz Perez and I were pre-cast, but the other two roles required a lot of auditioning. We saw tons of really talented guys. But as many brilliant actors as there are out there, our community is in some ways very small. It came down to two of my favorite actors, who also both happen to be dear friends. I didn't know how to choose. I loved them both so much. I broke down in the middle of a studio at Shetler, just sat down on the carpet and cried. I am so happy that I have plans to work with both of them in the coming year!
What did you want the audience to come away with after watching your production?
Ari: I would love for people to think about the ways we are all connected -- across geography, culture and time -- and to feel inspired to reach out and help, even with the awareness that what they offer may be "imperfect." This is a play that invites us to be brave, and to take responsibility for our actions and the way the ripple into the world around us. And it asks us to be honest with ourselves about what we bring into a room, and to think honestly about the coincidences and the life events that have shaped who we are and how we see the world.