This year’s University of Texas New Theatre (UTNT) festival featured two new fully produced plays by M.F.A. candidate playwrights, both performed in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre. Both plays capture the “new” of UTNT, innovating in different and exciting ways.
Zachariah Ezer’s “Address the Body!” is an Afropessimist critique of American universities, a ghost story, and a conspiracy thriller that examines the banality of evil. Directed by Dominique Rider, the play is layered with symbolism. Tracing a complex web of relationships, it finds humor in the absurdity of institutional bureaucracy and refuses to let academic prestige cover over the unaddressed histories of racial violence and inequality that institutions and their policies continue to perpetuate.
Idealistic sophomore Cree Burnside (Lizzie Ufomadu) and disillusioned upperclassman Blair Woodyard (Marissa Angel Barker) are the only two Black members of the university’s “Presidential Committee on Slavery and its Afterlife.” Despite lip service from administration, their research is blocked at every turn. Rhodelle Grayson (Mackenzie “Mack” Thornton), a mother grieving the death of her son, is determined to access a box in the university archives that is significant to her family history. Meanwhile, expressive ghost Epimetheus (Allen Porterie) interferes in support of his own unfinished business.
The university at the heart of the play is never named- whenever characters refer to it, the audience instead hears rattling chains. This sound effect (part of Demian Gael Chavez’s sound design) serves as a reminder that every aspect of modern America has been shaped by the history of slavery, and universities are no exception. Within the play, it’s no secret that the university’s Latin motto, the exact opposite of the United States’s “E Pluribus Unum,” was chosen as a Civil War gesture of rebellion. And apparently, people already know that the university system owned slaves. The committee is tasked with finding out something new and writing a report for the “overseers,” a trustee-like leadership group.
Although fictional, the play reflects the realities of many institutions. The “Presidential Committee on Slavery and its Afterlife” is reminiscent of the Princeton and Slavery Project, itself just one version of the attempts by many schools to wrestle with their histories through research. Closer to home, the fictional university’s motto with admitted roots in the Civil War is not unlike UT’s school song “The Eyes of Texas.” After the publication of dueling official and independent reports, the university continues to struggle to understand and confront the extent to which the song is connected to both a racist minstrel show and a Robert E. Lee quote. (A nonbinding referendum will be held February 27-28 to gauge student opinion on the song.)
In additional layers, the play denounces human remains in university archives, another relevant critique, as UT’s archives include the remains of at least 1,900 Indigenous persons, and as universities across the country, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have begun to address the human remains, including skulls of enslaved people, in their collections.
“Address the Body!” is filled with rich characters who, navigating a university system, power imbalances, and institutional racism, make different and complex decisions. At its core, the play is a call to action, exposing the absurdity of an indictment of performative gestures.
“Very Blue Light” written by Daphne Silbiger and directed by Kristen Osborn is set in Marfa. The play begins the morning after Magna (Ozma Darling) is abducted by aliens. Fueled by pensive conversations under the Texas sky between Magna and her friends, the play tackles issues of belief, support, and humanity’s smallness in relation to the cosmos.
Angela (Angel Hernandez) refuses to believe in aliens. Coleman (Hal Cosentino), a visiting friend from high school, is more neutral, but is still making missteps in his attempts to support Magna’s transition and renew his friendship with her. He worries about her safety as a trans woman in Texas but struggles to shake the habit of calling her “man” in casual conversation. Michigan (Mateo Hernandez) thinks something alien-like happened to him too, while watching the famed Marfa Mystery Lights on one of his first nights in town.
The set, designed by Teresa Guerrero C., is a simple circular platform that becomes a backyard, a cafe table, and the Marfa Mystery Lights viewing platform with simple shifts. Paired with Heekyung Kim’s starry projection design and lit from below as part of Stephen Pruitt’s mesmerizing lighting design, the mise en scene evokes wide open spaces.
Watching the characters reflect and reconceive their ideas about the world on both a grand and personal scale, the play’s meditative scenes provide opportunities for introspection. Faced with unprovable experiences, the characters sometimes fight it out, but the play comes back to care, rather than common understanding, as the key to sustaining friendships.