By LORI ABBOTTS
Daily News Staff
Tackling the tough racial and civil right issues of today, Four Walls Theater’s “Rights of Passage,” a new drama by Michelle Tyrene Johnson, will livestream tonight at 8 and will be available through July 24.
Four Walls Theater is a grass roots socially responsible theater based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that produces new plays through online readings and performances.
Playwright Johnson is a public radio journalist, author and speaker from the Kansas City, Mo., area who now lives in Louisville, Ky. As an award-winning playwright, Johnson’s plays have been staged nationally. Recently, her play “Only One Day A Year” was chosen for the Kennedy Center’s 2020 New Vision/New Voices Festival and recently received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Although written in 2014, Johnson’s play asks a question just as relevant today. What happens when a white police officer comes to a law office to seek legal help after killing an unarmed black youth? Controversy and media attention haven’t yet happened, but for the police officer, explaining what happened is more complicated than he bargained for.
The diverse actors in “Rights of Passage” are located around the country: Coda Boyce (Michigan), Henry Gardner (New Jersey), Mark Mazzarella (Minnesota), Neil Redfield (New York/Texas), and Ava Saunders (Illinois). The assistant stage manager is Kate Hohn (Georgia). All are 2020 graduates.
The production is directed by Sibyl Rolle, a theater arts educator at the V.I. Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy on St. Thomas. Originally from Indianapolis, Ind., Rolle has taught in New York, Kuwait and Uganda, giving her a more global perspective. Rolle uses music, creativity and innovation as a conduit for cultural exchange through the personal narrative. Her teaching and directing centers around empowering young people to speak their truth through storytelling. She is also a trained opera singer.
With “Rights of Passage,” Rolle and her actors stray from the group’s usual reading style, using blocking and movement while rehearsing via Zoom meetings.
“Zoom rehearsals are pretty similar to live rehearsals, working with me to develop characters, but it also forces actors to take on the role of set designer and costume designer and lighting,” Rolle said.
The process of character study has been interesting, given the racial pandemic we are living through, according to Rolle.
“I’m asking actors to engage in a more inward look,” she said. “I want them to scan their lives and think about experiences where race has affected their lives and how that has played out for them and how they feel in their body, in a way to physicalize the characters.”
We often get sucked into a singular narrative, she said. This forces both the actor and the audience to “look at the subtext of that character, all those sides of the character that we don’t as a society want to see and believe. There may be goodness in a person who did a horrible thing. It’s a poignant piece of theater.”
To accompany the play, photo documentaries were created focused on the history of policing in America and the history of protesting against racial injustice. Because some of the images may be disturbing, Rolle suggests an audience of ages 14 and up.
The spotlight charity for this production is Black Lives Matter. Donations can be made at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/110986644040. All donors who purchase tickets prior to the start of the show will be invited to the exclusive post-show talkback on Zoom. For more information visit www.fourwallstheater.com or www.facebook.com/fourwallstheater.