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It has been a year of sad attrition in the local theatre world. We've lost Deep Dish in Chapel Hill; Common Ground in Durham will close in a few weeks; and for no apparent reason, the Carrboro ArtsCenter did away with its theatre program, which Jeri Lynn Schulke had made better than ever. But always, art rises to refill the vacuum. The young company Black Ops Theatre, led by Artistic Director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, is seizing the moment. Holloway-Burrell is on a big mission to challenge "preconceived notions (conscious and otherwise) on what Black Theatre should look like." She's after "opportunity for Black artists," but her clarion call will resonate in anyone who believes in art: "Black Ops … is theatre without boundaries; we adhere to no creative restrictions or expectations." Her declarations hark back to bold days of Everyman Company and People's Art Action in the 1970s. To the barricades, comrades — in this case, seats in your local art theatre.
In Durham, that's Manbites Dog Theater, still kicking ass and taking names after 30 years. MDT is rightfully renowned for its own productions, but is also revered among the play-making class for its generosity to other theatre groups. Think about it: how many (or really, how FEW) places are there to make theatre inside, out of the weather? For its 2016-17 season, Manbites has included four co-productions with other groups, including the current show with Black Ops.
The Typographer's Dream, by Adam Bock, fits well into Manbites' long exploration of the human psyche. Some may remember MDT's chilling 2009 production of Bock's The Receptionist, and JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell's direction of this quirky play succeeds for much the same reason that Jeff Storer's did in that show: there is no definite separation between the stage world and the audience. The Typographer's Dream begins with two of the three characters murmuring and fidgeting nervously behind a panelist's table, while the audience fills the room with chatter. The play "begins" when the third character rushes in, late and flustered.
Immediately, the three begin to address the audience directly. They are here to talk about their jobs: typographer, geographer, stenographer. There are really beautiful sentences about the larger qualities of these kinds of writing. The Stenographer, Dave (Lazurus Simmons), talks about the challenge of listening and the thrill of getting a court transcription right. He compares his work to making music, with the strokes on the steno machine grouping like chords. The Geographer, Annalise (JoRose), shows off her maps and talks about the different "truths" they can represent and how geography has such subversive potential that those in power have had to "hide it in social studies." The Typographer, Margaret (Jessica Flemming), has some of the most lyrical lines, when she can get a word in edgewise. Typography, she says, "… is language captured." With the letters and their design, the capitalization and punctuation, the spaces, "We capture breath." Verba volant; scripta manent.
The speakers quickly get to the core of the matter. Each profession is a way of capturing and preserving and telling the truth. But as Margaret says, "If the typographer has done her job, her opinion will look like the truth. An unethical typographer can make a lie look like the truth."
Each says some version of "it's hard to tell the truth." And somewhere along about there, the play turns inward. Margaret, Annalise, and Dave are friends, drinking too much at home, and telling unexpected truths to each other (not to the audience), while trying to suss out what's right and what's not about "you become your job and your job becomes you." The Typographer's dream is to be fully aligned with her work and that her work be fully aligned with Truth telling. Beautiful dreamer.
Nothing actually happens in this play, but the actors keep our attention with the intensity of their characters throughout their philosophizing, their self-defenses, their unmasking of the people beneath the job titles. On preview night, there were a few lags in timing, and a couple of small stumbles, but many heart-seizing moments. Lazarus Simmons continues to impress with his empathetic portrayals, and it was really interesting to see Jessica Flemming, who is a woman of some height and physical grandeur, make herself small and conflicted. JoRose was new to me, but I expect we'll see her again soon, and hear her expressive inflections.
This play has no requirements that the actors be of any particular race or ethnicity. They could have been any color or mix. That's part of the point. In most theatres, the cast would have been mixed, maybe including one Black actor. This director did not use "color-blind casting" (which so often appears to be tokenism), nor was she interested in politically correct balance. She wants to make a bigger play space for the talented Black actors in the area. The play might be anything – but the artists on stage are Black – that's Holloway-Burrell's model for a new Black Theatre. And that's still radical. Support your local revolutionaries: buy theatre tickets.
The Black Ops production of The Typographer's Dream continues at Manbites Dog through Saturday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.