When British playwright, director, and actor Kwame Kwei-Armah was named the new artistic director at Baltimore's Centerstage theatre in spring 2011, there was talk of hopey changey stuff to come with him. If My America is any indication of the sort of work to come from Kwei-Armah's leadership, you should all go buy your Go Pass now.
It's a big year for America with the upcoming election. It's a big year for Centerstage with their 50th Anniversary. Kwei-Armah designed a joint celebration with My America. Centerstage asked 50 leading playwrights to respond to the question "What is My America?" with a three minute monologue. The list of contributors included local playwrights Rich Espey and Juliana Avery, as well as nationally recognized artists including Christopher Durang, Neil LaBute, and Anna Deveare Smith. The monologues were filmed by Possible Films and directed by Hal Hartley. Several monologues will be released on the My America website each week between now and November 6.
Last night, several of the playwrights attended the premiere for My America, where some monologues were shown in film on screens, while others were performed live on stage. In between every few monologues, Kwei-Armah invited the writers and actors on stage for brief interviews. The monologues cover a lot of territory - geographically, emotionally, topically. Anna Deveare Smith's piece about a principal's attempt to write a letter to parents in the wake of school tragedy is uncomfortably prescient. Lydia Diamond contributes a terrific piece brilliantly and hilariously performed by Tracie Thomas. There are no weak links.
Aside from being a delightful evening of celebration and great entertainment, the My America premiere represented the kind of fresh new theatre of which I hope to see more from Kwei-Armah and others. The show last night tied in multimedia production, live-acted performances, and improvised interviews. After the show, everyone stayed around to enjoy food and drinks and conversation about the show. And it's not over yet. Not only will new monologues continue to be released over the next five weeks, Centerstage also has plans to extend the project into Baltimore City Schools, asking students, "What is My Baltimore?" Having witnessed the power of personal story telling in my own classroom, I know this project will have a far reach.
This isn't breaking the fourth wall, this is blasting out of the whole building to extend the theatre to young citizens across the whole city and patrons of the world wide web.
My America challenges every construct of theatre in the most refreshingly brilliant way. Who says theatre has to be three hours in your chair with a hasty intermission? Who says theatre has to be all live or devised? Who says theatre has to end when the show does? My America is theatre for everyone, everywhere, any and all the time. The hopey changey stuff wins this round.