Gabriel Brown walked down the corridor that leads to the dressing room in the TheaterWorks building on Pearl Street in Hartford. It was time to change from street clothes into his costume. As he passed the stage, Brown stopped and looked out into the empty seats.
“I need to take a moment and just take in this space,” Brown said before the show’s opening night last month. He took a deep breath and smelled the fresh carpet. Despite the new smells of the renovated TheaterWorks building, he felt like he was returning home.
He was about to see an audience in person for the first time in 15 months.
But it wasn’t inside the usual building this time. Instead, his audience sat outside, surrounded by trees and the Connecticut River in Windsor. Grass was under their feet, the moon and stars above.
The outdoor theater idea came during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, including the audience cap and masking and social distancing requirements. The team planned the show in January 2021, when the positive case rate was high and vaccines were not widespread. The team asked themselves many times how to put on the play while keeping people safe.
“What has been really amazing that comes from the pandemic is that theater companies are actually embracing new forms in a way that they never have, they never would have,” said Mei Ann Teo, the director of “Walden.” The show is scheduled to run through Aug. 29.
The guests walked down a gravel road to a wooden house, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop and distanced picnic chairs. The audience was immersed in the center of the tableau, facing the stage and wearing headphones so they could better hear the performance.
Rain showers can be part of the immersive experience, as can an orange sunset, but the outdoors experience is aligned with the play’s intention: to encourage the audience to care about the Earth going through climate change.
“It’s really hard to get people to engage with it because we don’t want to think about it. It feels so huge,” said Amy Berryman, the playwright, who writes a lot about climate change. “This time has forced us to all be creative.”
The audience sits away from the actors, but the headphones make them feel like the three actors are nearby. They hear the intimate sounds of pouring and drinking wine, breathing, whispering and flushing the toilet. Personalizing the climate change story — with stage and sound — is intentional.
Reflecting diversifying populations
On the first page of the Walden script, these instructions stand out: “Please reference the 2013 National Geographic article ‘The Changing Face of America’ when casting this play. Cassie, Stella, and Bryan should reflect a more and more diverse America.”
Playwright Amy Berryman, who is white, was adamant that the play should not be an all-white cast.
“What feels important is that the play reflects what the future will look like,” Berryman said.
The play takes place in the not-so-distant future. People who check off more than one race have become one of the fastest growing categories since the U.S. Census Bureau allowed that option in 2000. If current trends continue, the Census Bureau projected in 2015, the multiracial population will triple by 2060.
Reflecting and engaging communities of color through the actors felt important, too, because the climate crisis is going to affect everyone no matter their race, Berryman said.
So an unusual scene in the theater industry unfolded last week. Two Korean Americans and a Black person stood as the only actors in front of a mostly white audience. They never addressed their race throughout the play, though. They instead talked about dreams, family and existence that people of any race can relate to.
“When there’s no indication of a specific race of a person, they don’t usually go with BIPOC actors,” said Jeena Yi, a Korean American actor who plays the character “Cassie.” “If someone told you the plot of, ‘Oh, it’s a movie about a brother and a sister and their journey and their complications with their father,’ in your brain, that picture you’re going to paint is probably white people – white bodies and white faces.”
Typically, Asian American female actors in Yi’s age range are automatically put into the mix and play a tough girl role, Yi said. In her seven-year career as an actor, she captains a family drama for the first time in “Walden.”
Gabriel Brown has a similar story. As a Black actor, he has often played the roles of a drug dealer, a convict and a slave over the past 10 years.
“It’s not to say that those other plays that do deal with the racial trauma aren’t important and needed, and so impactful,” Brown said. “But it’s so nice to just be seen fully as a human and to get to experience storytelling elements that I, as an African American actor, don’t normally get to experience.”
Diana Oh, a Korean American actor who plays the character “Stella” in “Walden,” was frustrated that films, plays and music show only a small portion of what Asian Americans are capable of.
“There hasn’t been a demand for it, right?” Oh said. “There’s no invitation. There hasn’t been the character to step into.” That’s why Oh has created their own plays, installations and songs. “I didn’t have the patience to wait for the role for me to finally step into it,” Oh said.
Waiting for a day to see a Black Tom Hanks
Jeena Yi notices that the industry is slowly changing. Yi comes across more people of color in positions of power, including directors, producers and writers. “It takes those people with decision making power saying ‘yes,’” Yi said. “There’s a lot of decisions made before I’m even asked to be in a room to audition.”
Teo, the director of “Walden,” is a queer immigrant from Singapore. Teo was excited when they were offered the opportunity.
“I’m not usually hired to do works by white playwrights who are alive,” Teo said, laughing. They find themselves working a lot with Asian and African American playwrights.
Hiring Teo as a director even had an impact on the design team. All four designers are female and three immigrated from different places in Asia. But Teo said they didn’t set out to bring a team of a specific gender or race. They chose the people whom they love working with and whose point of view excites them.
“To me, this is a long time coming,” Teo said. “If you look at the Asian American representation across the United States, even especially in New York, where there’s so many more Asians, it really shows a deep lack of racial equity and justice in the American theater.”
Asians make up 14% of the New York City population as of 2019 according to Census estimates, but 6.3% roles on New York City stages went to Asian actors during the 2018 and 2019 season, according to a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. About 93.8% of all directors on Broadway were white, similar to 92.6% of Broadway designers, according to the report.
When asked about actors that Brown admires, Tom Hanks first comes to his mind. He loves that Hanks plays rich characters that are not defined in a limiting way, as in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”
“I’d love to be every man — a guy out here just living his life, falling in love, doing his thing, working at his job,” Brown said. He acknowledges that he carries identity as a Black person. But he also knows that race is part of his identity, not his sole identity.
He cannot wait for the day when consumers who want to see people of color in a play have the option of a rom-com with a Black Tom Hanks, besides stories about racial trauma. “That will be the day. That will be a beautiful day,” Brown said.