In March of 2020, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Phoenix Theatre Company went dark for the first time in its 100 year history. One of its last performances prior to this point was the locally-produced ¡Americano!, which this writer attended and covered here.
With the intent of resuming its 2020-2021 schedule in January, the Company has started experimenting with a variety of web-based productions that enable both the performers and the attendees to maintain responsible social distancing while still immersing audiences in a theater-like experience. The result, at least in the case of UNITE: A Benefit for Black Lives Matter, is closer to a multi-screen visual arts presentation, but still manages to provide a vibrant theatrical experience where the applause of the crowd is replaced by the soundless but enthusiastic chatbox chatter of the online audience.
At 7PM Arizona time on June 26th, I click over to a live YouTube feed of this single-performance show. I am met by a solid black screen on which is printed #BLACKLIVESMATTER. To the right of the screen is a chatbox. As I sit there, waiting for the show to start, others “tune in” and a lively conversation ensues. Although I know none of these participants, I immediately feel a part of the group and fall in with them as if they are old friends. “What a great idea!” “It should be an awesome show!” “My cousin’s in this one!” “My sister!” “My son!”
The conversation continues and the hashtag on the screen is replaced by a countdown clock. This only heightens the thrill of anticipation. The show is about to begin! Absent are the latecomers and stragglers who always manage to have seats that require nearly everyone in the row to stand up to let them pass. Absent are the unusually tall or coiffed individuals whose heads (or hair) conveniently intersect the plane between your eyes and the stage. Absent are the coughers and sneezers and incessant whisperers. (It’s a wonder that I even like the theatre. But I do.) In short, every seat of this online experience is the best seat in the house.
The show opens with a split screen of the Company’s Producing Artistic Director, Michael Barnard, and the UNITE show’s director, Chanel Bragg. Mr. Barnard gives a brief though heartwarming introduction before turning the attention over to Ms. Bragg. Ms. Bragg’s role in this performance — other than being the show’s director — is to preface each musical number with context, although the song choices themselves are sufficient to punctuate the issues of a society that has brought us to this point.
The first number is performed by six members of the ensemble, separated into their individual socially-distanced spaces, and accompanied by a single piano. The music is sparse. The voices are powerful. The message is on point. “Black & Blue” is a song that bemoans the injustice of being judged by the color of your skin. It is not a new song, but rather a 1929 Fats Waller composition (lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf). Louis Armstrong & his All Stars did a live performance of it in Berlin in 1965. Check it out here. The relevance of a song nearly a century old to present day events cannot be lost on any but the most clueless (or soulless) individuals.
The showcase continues. Each song is a high concept that delivers a personal message: “Everybody Says ‘Don’t’”, “You Don’t Know This Man”, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, and so on. Song choices reflect social issues and specifically racial (and, dare I say, gender) discrimination, in all of its incarnations across the decades. Individual performances — as well as the opening sextet version of “Black & Blue” — are performed by Miguel Jackson, Yolanda London, Matravius Avent, Wesley Barnes, Anne-Lise Koyabe, Moya Angela, Antonio King, and Chanel Bragg.
The constraints of “pandemic-era” performance do not allow for physical interaction among performers. Director Bragg chooses to employ a sort of a “handing-off” technique. Her commentary and intro are followed by a pertinent full-screen quote (such as “Without inclusion…nothing is sustainable.” — Misty Copeland, American ballet dancer), and then by a solo performance by one of the ensemble. The show repeats the cycle in this fashion with one or two breaks in which both Bragg and Barnard appear for a minute or two to remind us of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and of the charitable nature of this show. At one point, a full-screen reminder to SAY THEIR NAMES is followed by a list of 111 names, starting with Emmett Till (lynched in Mississippi in 1955) and ending with George Floyd.
Ms. Bragg might have formatted this showcase in a number of different ways within the medium, but the technique she chose works well for the subject matter. It allows multiple compelling messages to be shared, apart from yet cohesive with each other. It allows each performer to share a very personal interpretation of the subject matter. And it allows us to absorb the underlying meaning within each song without the distraction of the plotline of a play which must, by its nature, pick one story to tell. Instead we have a microcosm of the broader Black experience and a permanent document of this moment in our history.
UNITE: A Benefit for Black Lives Matter is a successful endeavor by the Phoenix Theatre Company to transform live theater into an online viewing experience. It is only one of many different productions that are and will be available online. UNITE can be viewed in replay at the following YouTube webpage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgNr10zExzg