PLAY REVIEW: ‘History of Theatre: About, By, For, and Near’ | Written by Reginald André Jackson, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton | At the Falls Theatre at ACT | Feb. 2–12 ARTS
"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.” — Margaret Atwood
Traveling backward in time is what it felt like to watch “History of Theatre: About, By, For, and Near” — written by Reginald André Jackson and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton — on the play’s opening night, Feb. 2, at the Falls Theatre at ACT in downtown Seattle.
The play opens with the leading character, Sister Blacknall (Dedra D. Woods), who has been tasked with the job of creating a play that tells the stories of Black people in theater history, specifically in Seattle. She gathers an ensemble of seven other actors to portray the lives of these people, while literally taking the audience back in time through her time machine to the early 1820s. While she takes the audience through this journey, she is plagued by the voices of the unwritten artists calling out to her for their voices to be heard.
Easily the most special thing about this piece was the stories that it told in a very factual way. Most plays that I have watched have felt very educational in the sense of portraying themes and hidden messages that the audience would, hopefully, catch onto and understand or interpret in their own way by the end. But this play provided a space where truths can be told: These are the facts, this is the history, these are the stories untold. It’s in your face in the very best way possible.
Watching this play made me realize how rarely I have seen an ensemble that is primarily made up of Black actors and stories that are written by Black playwrights.
For some reason, I was expecting the show to be primarily a dramatic piece, a time for solace and acknowledgement. But, to my surprise, there were moments of laughter, tears, music and dance. I have a great appreciation for art that can take painful moments and provide a space where the audience can laugh. I believe laughter is important to healing.
Although this play is about the history of Black theater, it is not specifically made for Black audiences. I think that this play is made for anyone who is willing to listen and allow for change to be enacted in their hearts and minds. I think this play is made for anyone who is willing to explore racial biases and discrimination and face the dark truth about the eras and errors of our past.
As a Black woman myself, I didn’t know what I was walking into when reading the title of the play. At first I was hesitant, because I thought, “Here we go again; another story, probably written by a white person, about either slavery or racism.” I was prepared to be unimpressed and, admittedly, went into the theater with a closed heart. But the characters and the story — and the constant questions I had swirling around in my head, like, “Why didn’t I know this? Why haven’t I heard of this person before?” — made me both sad that it took this long for their stories to be told and glad that I went and learned something new that I could share with my friends and family.
Something that caught my eye during the show was the images within the time machine behind the actors. These images were the unwritten figures they portrayed, each with the name of the figure and a hand reaching out to the audience. As I was watching the play, my gaze periodically drifted to these figures, imagining how each of them talked, what each of them would say in this moment, how they would see the world today. And the hands reached out as if to say, “Please listen; I don’t know if my story will ever be told again.”
Overall, it was such a joy watching this “History of Theatre,” a 10/10 recommendation for anyone who would listen. In a more technical review, the stage and set design were great, the characters’ interactions with the audience made the experience that much more enjoyable and the actors were immersed in their characters. I truly felt like I was 200 years in the past for an hour and 40 minutes. n
Winnie Muthee is an actor, director and writer in the Seattle area. She enjoys hiking, acting and crocheting. Find her social media at @winnieology.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.