For American Players Theater, strong storytelling, no matter who is telling it, deserves to be heard. The space between language and those who choose to listen is a sacred place, where truth and reflection allows for a clear path towards understanding a perspective other than your own. That space is becoming more confined and personal for this small, esteemed classical theater company, located in the wooded hills of Spring Green, Wisconsin. This summer season, APT will continue its goal in redefining the term “classical” through two refreshing plays, The River Bride and The Brothers Size. Those who wish to hear their echoes repeated back to them from Wisconsin’s deep forest will be able to; for others, these plays may help redefine what it means to be a friend in the woods.
The act of including plays which offer a diverse lens, written by revered but often underrepresented playwrights in the world of “classical” theater, is a challenge which APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita wants to simplify. She relies on a diverse cast of core theater company members, who come to her with wisdom on certain social issues that she may have never considered before. And for this, she’s grateful.
“I think that theater, if it’s doing its job, is going to reflect society,” DeVita says. “It’s like what Hamlet said, ‘to hold a mirror up to nature.’” The trust that DeVita holds for APT’s intentions within diversity comes with ease, knowing the types of theater lovers who enjoy the company’s bucolic setting come for the right reasons.
“I try to remind our audience about how we’ve always evolved,” DeVita says. “And they know that. They want to come along with us; they trust that we’re going to present and perform challenging pieces for them with consideration towards their hearts and minds.” This trust became evident during the debut of APT’s 2019 production of the acclaimed Fences, written by cultural juggernaut August Wilson. This play’s debut was a first: the first August Wilson play at APT, the first time the play has ever been performed in an outdoor setting, and the first time an APT production included an all Black cast in a play about a Black family.
“I remember walking back down the hill, from the stage, and overhearing someone tell their loved one, ‘I really hope that man has written more plays’, meaning August Wilson,” DeVita says. (Wilson is author of 18 plays and winner of six Tony Awards.) “Working with this team of artists, who understand how important it is for our predominantly white audiences to understand how brilliant writers like August Wilson are, is one of the greatest honors of my career. That type of responsibility weighs really heavily and happily on our artists.”
APT core member Gavin Lawrence, who is currently in his seventh season with the company, takes this weight with him in stride towards satisfying his passion for theater. Having had many experiences playing in rural areas – everywhere from barns to churches to school houses – as a Black man, not much bothers him, or scares him.
Lawrence, a Howard University graduate and long time theater actor, directs The Brothers Size, an intimate play that’s steeped in Western African ideology. With no more than four cast members, Lawrence intends to keep the execution of the play within the confines – or lack thereof – of the plays original intentions: to be performed wherever, by whoever, without the theatrical fourth wall; an open invitation to celebrate life – replacing audience with community – under the shade of magical realism and intimacy.
“I don’t think there’s any other play similar to The Brothers Size,” Lawrence says. The play – written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the academy award winning movie Moonlight – follows two brothers, Ogun Size and Oshoosi Size. Plagued with worry for his brother’s well being, Ogun struggles to tear Oshoosi away from the hauntings he endured during his time in prison, which worsens when his old cell mate, Elegba, pays a visit.
Lawrence, who joined APT in 2016, is the company’s only Black core member. He goes where the work is, and APT allowed him to live out his passion for including diverse stories into the classical theater cannon. He vouched for August Wilson, but struggled with how to keep a Black cast interested in staying in such a remote area, which is something he also considered when offered his core member position.
“Because of all the obstacles I would have to face as a Black man in a rural space, it was tricky,” Lawrence says, meaning he’d be away from his home in Chicago for a major portion of the year, away from everything he knows as comforting, with the position ranging from May to October.
“I have no issue with being in rural Wisconsin. The only big problem I see here in Spring Green is the lack of sustaining the lifestyle I might be used to in Chicago,” Lawrence says. “But I feel a certain amount of responsibility to create space for other artists of color to come here and be a part of this kind of like, evolving, amazing theater company that is really looking to step firmly into this idea of a new kind of classical theater.” The classics – such as the revered Shakespere productions put on by the company – will likely always be presented each season, but embracing new diverse stories that still fall underneath the umbrella of classical theater will from now on be a constant.
The River Bride reassures this step into the APT’s continuous path towards inclusion, with its cast being made up entirely of Latinx people. Ten year APT core member Melisa Pereyra will take on the leading role of Helena, a sister and daughter caught within the complexities of her relationship between her sister, her soon to be brother-in-law, and the mysterious man that her father fishes out of the amazonian river.
Pereyra’s experience is unique and impressive. She began acting as a young child after immigrating to Idaho Falls, Idaho from Argentina. After a lifelong passion for storytelling and being true to her goofy self, she now holds a BFA and an MFA in acting, an assistant professorship of acting at Boston University, and classical training through the United Kingdom’s prestigious Globe Theater and Royal Shakespeare Company.
“Playing Helena is probably the most challenging work I’ve ever done,” Pereyra says. “It’s all the parts of me that I don’t want anyone to see on display. The amount of rigor and courage that this play asks me to step into feels very rewarding.” Perryra’s advocacy for The River Bride’s inclusion into this season came with support from the play’s director, Robert Ramirez, who has history with APT and served as the play’s voice and text coach during its premier at the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She immediately fell in love with the character and the story, originally written by Mexican-American poet and playwright Marisela Treviño Orta, labeling her elegant use of language as a deserving of a proper classical production.
“In a sense, I don’t believe that theater is an inclusive space,” Pereyra says. “Even after the difficulties of getting a job – having to go through all the steps in order to be the right fit for the character – it continues to be limiting. Sometimes the plays we are working on aren’t fully inclusive, and aren’t helping us actually highlight the bodies of culture that exist in our industry on a local and national level.”
For Pereyra, the inclusion of The River Bride is vital in combating this. The language that’s used in The River Bride requires a certain level of vulnerability, position, importance, and care, a conglomerate of familiarity which she has never experienced before. “That’s what happens when you share a common background with people, with a character. I mean, that’s why the art feels different; why it feels real for me, because I can relate,” Pereyra says.
Shakespeare, Pereyra thinks, could benefit from a new form of understanding. The methods she takes towards introducing her students to his works involves pulling back his artistic curtain to reveal what’s truly hiding. She believes that Shakespeare’s influence in the theater world and in culture perpetuates some ideas that may no longer be needed in modern day social spheres. Being a person of color, and being that English is her second language behind Spanish, it’s important for her perspective to take up space.
“When I teach Shakespere to my students, I don’t tell everyone ‘come learn about Shakespere because it’s amazing!’, it’s more like ‘look at this messed up part in this play, have you noticed this?’ I believe that we should be engaging in these old plays and in what classical theater means to us as much as we can,” Pereyra says.
DeVita says she needs people like Pereyra and Lawrence, because they are constantly truthful with her. “You’ve got to check yourself, and you’ve got to have the right people around you who are willing to work with your experience,” DeVita says. “We are building towards something here, together.”
“I feel like, despite all the things that I’ve experienced, APT provides an opportunity for me to continue to grow as an actor,” Lawrence says. I’m not even exaggerating when I say this, because I’m a very critical person, but the actors at this theater company are the best theater actors I’ve ever worked with. So it’s like, an ‘oh!’ moment…you can still continue to learn a whole lot from these amazing artists, and that excites me.”
“You know, I think there is great power in artists deciding what they’re good at,” Pereyra says. “I decided whether people were going to think I was going to be good at acting or not. I was going to make that decision for myself. And I think that decision is just a small act of resistance; a decision that allows us the agency to live out our truth. I will always strive for APT to be on the same task of creating an equitable space where we can all create art with joy and integrity.”
The River Bride premiered on June 17 and will continue until September 30. The Brothers Size will premiere on June 28 and continue until October 8. Tickets are available at AmericanPlayers.org.