Theater performances are back in person at the Krannert Center, and praise vaccines for it. Yesterday Julie shared her review of Lyric Theatre at Illinois’s Fun Home performance at Krannert, and I was able to catch a Friday night showing of Illinois Theatre’s Origin Story last weekend.
Origin Story is Illinois Theatre alumnus and award-winning playwright Nathan Alan Davis. Another of Davis’ plays, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, was featured in the 2016-17 season at Krannert Center, and according to Origin Story‘s program, the Illinois playwright is known for writing about the African American experience across time and geography using imaginative allegory and expressive language.
Though I had never seen Davis’ work before, I loved the idea of seeing a play at the University of Illinois written by an Illinois Theatre alumnus. Local theatre indeed! I arrived early for the show and found a seat. The program for the play was available by QR code if you want to check it out.
The entire audience was masked, and all actors were masked during the performance (except in the scenes which took place on a bed). It was the first time I’ve ever seen a performance with masked actors. If you’re wary of venturing out in an unmasked pandemic world, this masked show might let you enjoy live theatre and make you feel comfort with these COVID precautions.
The show began with Illinois Theatre Department Head Dr. Gabriel Solis sharing the Theatre Department’s goals and introspective questions: what is American theater? What is U of I’s place in it?
More of this message from the Theatre Department was included in the show’s program, and I want to share it here:
The University of Illinois System carries out its mission in its namesake state, which includes the traditional territory of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and Chickasaw Nations. These lands continue to carry the stories of these Nations and their struggles for survival and identity.
As a land-grant institution, the University of Illinois has a particular responsibility to acknowledge the peoples of these lands, as well as the histories of dispossession that have allowed for the growth of this institution for the past 150 years. We are also obligated to reflect on and actively address these histories and the role that this university has played in shaping them.
This acknowledgement and the centering of Native peoples is a start as we move forward for the next 150 years. Krannert Center affirms the commitment by the university to move beyond these statements, toward building deeper relationships and taking actions that uphold and preserve Indigenous rights and cultural equity.
As we gather to experience this performance, we have an opportunity to reflect on the ways that systems of oppression have shaped our society. We can work together to create systems that support human dignity, establish equity, strengthen cross-cultural relationships, and draw upon the creative capacity of all people that make up this community, state, nation, and world.
The play began with an artful choreographed walking scene featuring the entire cast. Each character walking near, walking past, walking up to others, and silently turning and going a different route, each character on their own path. It was a very cool way to begin, and I enjoyed seeing all of the cast before any lines were spoken even though I had no idea who each character was. It felt like they were a cohesive cast and that something transcendental was about to happen.
The stage had a minimal set: twelve clear cubes that were rearranged throughout the show to create different set pieces: tables, chairs, a bed. In addition, the use of projected images on the back wall and background noises created scenes that felt realistic and compelling.
Set in the present day ‘burbs, we follow lead character Margaret, played by Haven Janeil Crawley, as she works two jobs to pay off her student loans, a relatable struggle for many millennials. She works in an office called The Services Corporation by day and a 24/7 burger joint at night, and we watch as the people in her life: her coworkers, her friends, and new connections help her to discover her origin story. This peek at Margaret’s life hones in on common everyday moments and how connections can happen in the most unexpected ways.
Director (and Illinois Theatre producer, faculty member, and actress) Lisa Gaye Dixon says, “It is my hope that you can see a part of yourself in young millennials, Gen-X, Y, and Z-ers, and even the dreaded Baby Boomers!”
I could absolutely see myself in Margaret and in her friends and coworkers. The relatability of the characters and the actions they take are unmistakable. In one scene, a character doesn’t have a CD player, and in another, a character references receiving a message on Facebook. The young characters are making their way in this play, trying to balance all the difficulities that come with being adults, and for Margaret, the struggle of not knowing her origin story paired with new information given at an unexpected time makes for a great story to watch unfold.
Origin Story’s props and costumes were impressive. The water cooler station was so well-set up (with operational water jugs with real water!) that the the simple addition of rolling out the water cooler transformed the stage from abstract emptiness to a full on workplace break room. Later in the play, stagehands added a large sign for the restaurant “The Burg,” a cash register, and a prep station on wheels to make the stage a burger shop. The versatilty of the stage’s glass cubes and the clever placement of detailed props allowed the audience to imagine the different locations with ease.
Origin Story shows Margaret’s realistic quarter-life crisis without cynicism or naïveté. Crawley’s portrayal of Margaret is gripping to watch. Her monologues were well done, and her character’s frustration, realizations, and joy were unmistakable. Like the director Dixon says, “It is an oft-repeated truism that stories and plays reveal us to ourselves…No matter our status in life, we humans are always in need of connection — brief, sustained, calm, or chaotic—we need to know we matter, that we are seen.”
I felt something in the Studio Theatre last Friday night, and that something is accessible to everyone. The search Margaret takes is for herself: to learn who she is and who she is connected to. The rest of the cast does a fantastic job as the characters who support (or inform) Margaret as she finds out who she is and more about her own origin story.
The play tackles issues of race and identity. There were moments of sadness, shock, self reflection, self preservation—and there was a really fun dance scene. Relationships between coworkers, friends, lovers, and family are explored in Origin Story, and I believe there is something to which everyone can connect. There were some funny moments throughout the play, and also the production touched on serious topics and adult themes in an adept way.
The overall ambiance of the production was satisfying. The actors’ voices were loud, and the music was clearly heard in the theatre. Music was important for the director as Dixon was deeply inspired by music; she feels that music “lifts and opens the hearts of my students, making space for them to think and feel deeply in any given moment, without fear of consequence. Music reminds us of who we were, and therefore who we are now.” For Origin Story, Dixon drew inspiration from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, 1990s pop music, and 1980s new age music.
I also liked the small humdrum moments in the play, for instance when one character silently cleaned everything on stage while other characters spoke to each other. Be prepared for a slower paced play, not too much adventure, just hyper-focus on reality.
I found Origin Story‘s ending to be staged beautifully: the impact of the lights and the acting of the entire cast in the final scene made for a brilliant finale. Scenic designer Emma Brutman created a simple, elegant, and open performance space that allowed for movement sequences. The long list of individuals in the program who worked on the production, from Costume Designer to Designers of Lighting, Sound, and Media, show just how much hard work and dedication the Illinois Theatre Department has poured into Origin Story. The list continues to include a movement coach, intimacy director, hair and makeup, stage carpenter, electrician, audio engineer, dramaturg, and more.
For this play, there is a twenty minute intermission. During the intermission on Friday night, I heard announcements counting down the minutes over the soundspeaker inside Krannert until the play would resume. It was enough time to visit the Stage 5 bar which had beer and wine by the glass available for purchase.
I will end with something wonderful that the Origin Story director wrote. Dixon wrote, “There is something about sharing a space with imperfect humans—wearing any and everything from velvet jackets to tattered converse—and the crackle of energy between the audience and performers as the lights dim, knowing we are about to commune with one another with laughter, tears, and anything in between. And even though we may come away with wildly differing views of what we’ve just seen (another cool thing about live theatre), we have a shared experience to relive with each other around whatever serves as our version of the water cooler the next day. There is simply nothing like it.”
This is the final show for Illinois Theatre this semester, but the back half of the season will have three plays in the spring. Get your tickets for Origin Story which is playing in its second week this week: tonight, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m. plus a Saturday matinée. Tickets for Origin Story are available online only, as mobile or print-at-home tickets and are not available for purchase by phone or at the Ticket Office counter. Questions may be directed to the Ticket Office at 217.333.6280 or [email protected].
By Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon
Fr-Sa Nov 5-6 at 7:30 p.m.
Tu-Fr Nov 9-12 at 7:30 p.m.
Sa Nov 13 at 2 p.m.