Not all pieces of media are for everyone, and that is not limited to theater. Although I have all the hallmark indicators of a musical theater nerd who would love “Hamilton,” it has never grabbed my attention. Neither have most adaptations of Shakespeare, and I’m pretty picky about Ibsen.
However, “All New Cells” at the Theater Off Jackson was made exactly for me.
Millennials who spent too much unsupervised time on the internet and now are a part of too many Discord groups or can recite the MsScribed and Cassandra Clare drama by heart: this is for you. Zoomers who laugh at CringeTok and recite sections of the infamous fanfic “My Immortal”: this is for you. And anyone who’s formed an intense friendship with a stranger online: this is 100 percent for you.
The stage is set with four desks expertly adorned by props and set dressing designer Jessamyn Bateman-Iino to show off the personalities of their owners — who we know, it seems, only by their online names. The desks are wildly different, but there’s one shared element: each has a cleverly designed prop — a thin piece of acrylic plastic that represents a laptop, a monitor or a cellphone, so faces aren’t blocked as the characters get up close and personal with their devices.
Upstage center, we have Nils (Kasper Cergol), a teenage boy with a Naruto Akatsuki blanket and Star Wars plushies like any good weeaboo, but he also has plush representations of “Our Flag Means Death” characters on his shelf. Aeon (Jasmine Lomax) is stage left, a person old enough to have a child and embrace their nerdy side, with Studio Ghibli everywhere and some kid’s alphabet blocks in the corner. Moody (Kay Taylor Yelinek), on stage right, is the Hot Topic goth nerd, with dark, morbid decorations and a small horde of Coke Zero cans stacked around their desk. At the center of it all, downstage, is Lux (Zenaida Rose Smith). Lux’s desk is perfectly white, clean and modern with succulents neatly lined along the edge and a witchy rug underneath with a serpent and flowers.
We open with a Discord notification noise (a fast little buh-beep familiar to many roleplayers) and LED strips surrounding the desks, lighting green when the respective character comes online.
For readers who aren’t aware, Discord is like a glorified messaging system, akin to AOL Instant Messenger, complete with screen names, image sharing and multiple “categories” where people can make different channels to chat about certain subjects. This makes it a great medium for text-based role-playing between both individuals and groups.
The story of “All New Cells” is set around a Discord roleplaying server about gay vampires, primarily but not exclusively filled with queer women and nonbinary folks. The head of this community is Lux, with every character in the show vying for her approval at various points in time. The crux of the conflict is between Nils and Lux, specifically the very real and sobering pain that Nils has endured at the hand of someone the other characters admire to a fault.
There was something incredibly jarring about hearing so-called “internet lingo” — more often than not misappropriated AAVE — spoken out loud. The casual way anons say “kill yourself” left me uncomfortable in my seat. Anyone can see this same vitriol on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, despite lip service from the app moderators saying they’re cracking down on hate speech and threats.
Watching “All New Cells” felt like having my middle and high school diary strewn on the floor for the world to see. The way characters spoke to each other and the emotional investment hit a little too close to home. It is easy to get caught up in the feeling of “cringe.” This is a world I know intimately. And because I know this world, I also know the very real impact it can have. I have met some of my closest friends on Tumblr, people who I’ve flown around the world to meet. I’ve gone to weddings and sent baby clothes. I consider the friends I’ve met online to be just as valid as those I met “irl.” Members of an online fandom helped raise $12,000 for my cancer treatment. That mutual aid from a close community — online or not — helped save my life.
However, “All New Cells” also reminds me of the way weird power dynamics can pop up in online spaces. Clinging to someone else’s online schedule and the persona you’ve built in your head about them is dangerous. If you’ve never been a part of an online community, I know this may sound so strange. Manipulative and dangerous people don’t care where they meet their victims.
All four actors do a stupendous job bringing these characters to life. Initially, they felt like caricatures, but as the show goes on, it becomes more obvious that was purposeful. Initially, they are larger-than-life portrayals, the same way Discord is only text on a screen, with no tone or facial expressions to lean on. As we get to know each of them more “offline,” they become more complex and human. We learn their ego, sins and insecurities as online events have offline repercussions.
Even if this concept sounds bizarre and you don’t fit the demographics I mentioned before, you should give “All New Cells” a try. It is earnest, it is open-hearted and it is devastating.
The reason queer and other marginalized folks tend to come together to write about vampires isn’t just because they’re hot — which is still valid — but because it gives a voice to complex thoughts.
For the characters of “All New Cells” — and for many people young and old, on the internet and offline — role-playing is an expression of sexuality, desire, despair and the tragic catharsis of devouring something you love, wrapped up in a conventionally attractive metaphor.
Read more of the June 7-13, 2023 issue.