'Rastus and Hattie': race, friendship and trauma

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

16th Street Theater of Berwyn is serving up Rastus and Hattie, a play by Lisa Langford that addresses race, friendship and generational trauma. 

It is being delivered virtually to audiences through Oct. 24.  

"Before the pandemic hit, we were going to produce Joyce Foundation's award-winning Rastus and Hattie as a stage play here in Berwyn after Cleveland Public Theatre held the premiere," said Ann Filmer, artistic director of 16th Street. "But then everything stopped."

The play, which manages to stay light in tone throughout while dealing with heavy-hitting subject matter, is presented as an audio play with original illustrations to support the dialog. 

The original script required adaption to present it in an online format. 

"Lanise Antoine Shelley signed on as director and adaptor of the audio play," Filmer said. "Shelley provided just the right amount of additional text needed to bring the piece to life through the audience's imagination since there would be no visual action (by actors)." 

Shelly led a cast of seven voiceover actors in rehearsals over Zoom before recording at Classick Studios, Chicago, in August with Olanre Adewole as audio engineer, Filmer said. 

Malcolm Callan, 16th Street associate artist, proposed creating an audio version with animated abstracted silhouetted images, not only "to tell the story of the play, but to provoke the audience to go deeper," Filmer said. Langford loved the idea. 

Inspired by the images of Kara Walker — an artist investigating race and other topics through silhouetted figures, who has exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and other major institutions — the search was on for an artist for the 16th Street production. They found Roy Thomas, a Ball State University student, recommended by another artist with whom Filmer has worked. Thomas created 16 illustrations, one for each scene, that were edited for video by Peter Marston Sullivan.

The play opens with a Black woman's presentation of her work in academia, focused on inheritable generational trauma in rats and how it applies to Blacks in America — especially those whose ancestors (such as her own) go back to slavery — and how her presumably white mentor tries to edit her, in the name of protection. 

We soon learn that this woman, Needra (played by Krystel V. McNeil) is best friends since undergrad with Marlene (Kate Black-Spence), a white woman. Both now have significant others and children. During the celebration of Marlene and David (Ryan Kitley) becoming godparents to Needra and Malik's (David Goodloe) baby, things take a turn. 

After the Baptist church ceremony, in the white couple's home, two new characters are introduced, Rastus and Hattie. They are 1930s robots that have been brought back into use, found in David's uncle's barn from his Westinghouse days. 

The playwright's inspiration for these characters came from a photo of a robot developed by the Westinghouse electrical company. The human-like robot had brown skin and denim overalls. It debuted at the National Electric and Light Conference in San Francisco in 1930.

In the play, the divide between the two couples is immediate as Needra and Malik are taken aback by the dark skin on the robots and the roles they have been assigned, which is to serve their friends' every whim.

The unraveling throws into question what really makes a friendship, shines a light on greed and insensitivity, and demonstrates how the past is interwoven into everyone's present — for better or worse.  

There is plenty to think about and discuss after watching this play, whether watching alongside each other or at a moderated audience talk-back organized by 16th Street, which take place two nights per week.  

"Rastus and Hattie" is available for viewing on Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m., and Saturdays, 4 p.m., through Oct. 24, virtually on Vimeo. Ticket links work one hour before showtime through midnight. Moderated Zoom talkbacks occur after the Thursday and Friday, 7 p.m., performances. $10-$30, per person; $5, students. Content Warning: the play includes racist caricatures, racism and violence. Tickets/more: 16thstreettheater.org, 708-795-6704 x107.

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