Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Alexis Clements' well-constructed Unknown, is beautifully presented in its world premiere production as the first offering in 20% Theatre Company's 2019-2020 season. It is in part a tribute to the Archives, founded in 1974 and existing to this day, forged in the crucible of gay and lesbian activism in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. It is intended to be a safe place for queer woman to deposit the truth about their lives, as a font of support to woman like them, and as a way of documenting for posterity a chapter in human history that had been largely neglected.
In shining a light on the work of the Archives, Clements also reveals the painstaking process by which history reveals itself, by valuing the lived experience of unheralded individuals, shining light on their ordinary lives in a manner that makes them appear extraordinary. Sydney did not consider herself special or extraordinary, yet the composite story of her life lifts her up as a woman of great courage and heart who found a way to bring truth to her own life in spite of the harsh societal constraints of her era.
Clements also, almost stealthily, creates a social timeline that posts changes in the degree of openness with which lesbians live in society. Sydney was born in 1932, growing up when being closeted was the only safe choice for a gay person and when having a meaningful, loving relationship with another woman felt like a pipe dream. Beverly, a Native American woman who befriends Sydney, has had to contend with both the times in which she came of age (she appears about twenty-five years younger than Sydney) but also her specific cultural community. Sophie appears to be in her early to mid-thirties, and so benefited from being born after the barriers started to crack, but when coming out and living an openly gay life still required a large quantum of courage for many men and women, jeopardizing relationships with family, church and employers. Thea, a fifteen-year-old openly gay volunteer at the Archives is aghast to learn that Sophie didn't come out until she was 26. In Thea's world, the closet does not exist as an option. Which is not to say Thea doesn't struggle with acceptance by her parents and at school, but that those are struggles beyond her ken to avoid or even delay.
The play also features Sophie's struggle to figure out how she wants her life to go. She is distressed by her off-and-on relationship with free-spirited Imari, flattered by Thea's dependence on her as a mentor, and stands in awe of Popcorn, the caretaker of the Archives, who is a source of tough love and heart-tempered wisdom. As an aside, I found it odd that Clements has Popcorn living on the top floor of the Archives, which is housed in an historic brownstone building. Only after doing a bit of research on the Lesbian Herstory Archives did I learn that written into their founding principles is a requirement that there always be a caretaker living on-site, so that it will be viewed as a home and not an institution. Clements brings this kind of authenticity to every aspect of Unknown.
In a similar way throughout the play, Clements provides characters and dialogue that feel absolutely genuine. Though these characters are all fictional, all of them project the sense that they could have been based on actual living persons. Director Mariah Larkin has done a wonderful job of creating different tones to reflect the in-the-present scenes featuring Sophie at the Archives and the in-the-past scenes featuring Sydney, and of maintaining a kind of suspense as the story of Sydney's life, as revealed by her own documentation of it, gradually begins to emerge.
The only drawback to the staging is the unfortunate need to have blackouts between scenes in order to transition from the Archives setting to the parlor in Sydney's home. Were there a way to design the space to allow both settings to be on stage, the transitions would flow more smoothly, melding without pause from Sophie's reading of Sydney's journals to our view of Sydney living out the words she had put into writing.
The seven actors all do remarkable work. Gina Sauer, as Sydney Held, is the beating heart of the story, the ancestor from whom everyone else's journeys are more recently blazed trails. Physically, Sauer presents Sydney as closer to 67 than 87, but emotionally, she conveys the weariness of a woman who has traveled a hard road, loved and lost passionately, and now wants nothing more than peace. Sophie is, in her own way, also traveling a challenging road, and Marci Lucht brings out the ambivalence Sophie feels about choices she faces, her life not necessarily easier for having more paths open to her. She exudes integrity in her commitment to honoring the lives of her foremothers who broke untilled ground to allow those paths to appear.
Siddeeqah Shabazz is terrific as Popcorn, conveying her authority over her own life, and a sense that she worked hard to attain that authority. Shabazz is skilled at mining humor in the text, but without ever diminishing the gravitas of her character. Lana Bean delivers the essence of a teenager riddled with anxieties over who she is, whom she loves, and where she belongs. We see her as a pain in the neck, yet her earnest search for her adult self draws our sympathy and understanding. As Beverly, the native woman who seeks friendship with Sydney, Inez DeCoteau acts with utter honesty, conveying a generous heart free of all artifice. Ankita Ashrit plays Sophie's on-and-off girlfriend Amari, and while the part is a bit underwritten, Ashrit endows her with a peppery mix of pushing the edge of the envelope while wanting Sophie's commitment to a steady relationship. In a small role, Camille Smith delivers the misplaced enthusiasm of a volunteer who will not need to bear accountability for her exuberance.
In spite of misgivings about the need to slow the play down with set changes, Fox Allen has designed a most evocative set, filling the stage with books and folders in the Archives, with a lived-in look of Persian area rugs and potted plants. Costume designer Anna Brauch has found apparel that looks perfectly at home on each of the characters, while lighting designer snem DeSellier sets the tone for movement between past and present. As sound designer, Kassia Lisinski furnishes recordings of Sydney's voice as Sophie reads Sydney's journals that make an effective connection between the two women. Lisinski also provides projections giving atmospheric backdrops to Sydney's narrative.
The Unknownis a very full play, running without an intermission, that compresses several important themes and compelling characters into a forceful whole that informs, inspires, and, for every answer it offers, proposes a new question. It fulfills the purpose of good drama, and 20% Theatre Company has given this intelligent and insightful new work a superb launch onto the theatrical landscape.
20% Theatre Company's Unknown runs through October 27, 2019, at Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $5.00 - $25.00. For more information and tickets call 612-227-1128 or visit tctwentypercent.org.
Playwright: Alexis Clements; Director: Mariah Larkin; Scenic Design: Fox Allen; Costume Design: Anna Brauch; Sound and Projection Design: Kassia Lisinski; Lighting Design: snem DeSellier; Stage Manager: Constance Brevell; Assistant Stage Manager and Props: Camille Smith. .
Cast: Ankita Ashrit (Imari), Lana Bean (Thea), Inez DeCoteau (Beverly), Marci Lucht (Sophie), Gina Sauer (Sydney), Siddeeqah Shabazz (Popcorn), Camille Smith (Volunteer).