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Raleigh Ensemble Players, one of the Triangle's prime purveyors of intellectually and emotionally challenging experimental theater on controversial topics, will commence its ambitious 2004-05 season with the North Carolina premiere of In the Heart of America, Naomi Wallace's intense R-rated drama set during the first Gulf War, Oct. 21-Nov. 6.
"I first ran across this piece while I was in graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi," says REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews. "It had been published in the March 1995 edition of American Theatre magazine. I found myself fascinated by the relationship between the two soldiers; and as a result, I submitted the piece as a possible selection for my graduate thesis production.
"While my graduate committee felt the piece was strong and would be a wonderful directing challenge for me," he recalls, "they also felt the content was too hot for the university community; we ended up going in another direction. However, the play has remained on my list of all time favorites; and it was one of the pieces that I pitched to REP when I was interviewing for the position of artistic director. Our Artistic Committee has considered the script each year since then."
Matthews adds, "In the Heart of America is a beautiful piece that everyone loves, yet there's something frightening about it; and given our country's return to the Gulf, it seems even more dangerous and all the more necessary for us to produce. I'm incredibly proud of our company for taking the risk."
He notes, "There's so much to like about this piece. I love its structure, the fact that it mixes past and present, reality and memory, spiritual and physical. [Playwright Naomi] Wallace's language is stunning and jarring, an incredible mixture of prose and poetry. The characters possess great depth and have so much to fight for ... the stakes are huge. I love, too, what the play has to say about labels and the destructive power of language. It's a huge challenge, something I felt our company was ready to tackle, something I felt our community needed to experience."
The play begins, Matthews says, "sometime after the end of the first Gulf War. Craver Perry (Ryan Brock) is holed up in a Kentucky Motel 6. He is visited by Fairouz Saboura (Canady Vance), a Palestinian-American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who is searching for her brother, Remzi (Tommy Hoang), who has yet to return from the Gulf. She has received a letter from Remzi saying that he and Craver were friends, so she finds herself in Kentucky, hoping that Craver will have some answers as to why Remzi has not returned.
"As Fairouz and Craver struggle with the past and present, as well as their relationships with Remzi," Matthews explains, "they are visited by Lue Ming (Brenda Lo), a Vietnamese woman, who is searching for someone else: the infamous Lt. William Calley, the man responsible for the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. Instead, Lue Ming and Craver encounter Boxler (Rus Hames), a member of the Army's Special Forces with a knack for training soldiers in the handling of 'delicate situations.'
"As the paths of the characters merge," Matthews says, "the truth surrounding Remzi and his relationship with Craver is revealed."
He adds, "Our largest challenge [in staging this play], and one that has surfaced each time we've considered producing the piece, was casting the play. Two of the characters are Palestinian-Americans and one is Vietnamese. We've worked diligently over the past few seasons to nurture the growth of diversity amongst our artist and our audience. As a direct result of that growth, we felt confident that we would be able to believably cast this play. Of course, there were challenges and obstacles along the way, but we are very pleased with where this journey has brought us.
"Once the roles were cast," Matthews says, "we knew that we had to provide the artists with as many cultural connections as possible ... foundations on which they could build the characters. It was imperative, too, that we be sensitive to the various communities portrayed within the piece. There were also myriad questions, many of which the playwright intentionally poses without answering, that had to be individually and collectively addressed.
"To aid us in this process," Matthews says, "we enlisted the assistance of Anh-Tuan Tran, president of the Vietnamese Student Association at N.C. State University, and Professor Jodi Khater of NCSU's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Anh-Tuan and Jodi shared with our team their personal responses to the script, as well as a great deal of insight and a number of experiences all of which proved invaluable to our process. We also met with Jodi's husband, Akram, and two students: Aseel Elborno and Miriam Elsayed. Our sessions were incredibly moving and meaningful; their stories were beautiful, shocking, even horrifying at times, and quite fitting given the content of the play and the plight of characters. I think we all consider ourselves very blessed to have had these opportunities."
In addition to director Glen Matthews, the show's production team includes assistant director/sound designer Heather Willcox, scenic designer Joseph Brack, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, and costume designer Diana Waldier.
Matthews says, "We've chosen for our controlling image/metaphor an open wound — one that's physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. It's a deep wound; and while it's working to heal itself, it's also prone to cracking, splitting, and reopening. When it does this, things (memories, experiences, even people) come out. From time to time, things also find their way into the wound. The wound becomes a battleground of sorts, a crossroads ... a place where love and hate, war and peace, past and present, physical and spiritual are juxtaposed.
He says, "Each of the design elements works together to realize this controlling image. Our costumes are rooted in reality, suggesting period and locale. Lights contribute beautifully to the emotional and psychological components of our equation, while our set — an 8-foot x 20-foot rake with fabric panels upstage — uses line, texture, space, and level to create a world in which the play's many juxtapositions become concrete and incredibly visceral for both the characters and the audience. Sound dances from the literal to the figurative, providing our story its tempo and forward momentum."
Warning: This play contains material that is both intense and adult in nature.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents In the Heart of America Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 21-23 and 28-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 31, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, Nov. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance Oct. 28 ($5 suggested minimum). 919/832-9607 and TTY 919/835-0624. Note: On Oct. 22, there will be an audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance with Large Print and Braille Programs preceded by Tactile Tour starting at 7 p.m. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/. Artspace: http://www.artspacenc.org/.