nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2011
Hope Speaks is a documentary theatre piece by The Movement Theatre Company that explores reactions to the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency in 2008. It's the result of a collaboration among six young theatre artists—Chanel Carroll, Cherrye J. Davis, Eric Lockley (who is also the company's executive director), Jonathan McCrory (who conceived and directed the piece), Kimberly Young, and Kisa Willis—who interviewed more than three dozen people about their actions and reactions on November 8, 2008. All of the artists are African Americans, and most of the folks they talked to in their research are people of color, which gives Hope Speaks a unique perspective, capturing voices that are still too seldom heard in mainstream media in this country.
As a work of stagecraft, Hope Speaks is impressive, particularly given the relative youth of its creators. It seems styled after works by The Civilians, Tectonic Theatre, and Anna Deavere Smith: the various interviewees' words are presented verbatim, with the actors recreating the general diction and verbal style of each subject without trying to do a full-out impersonation. Actors portray people whose gender, age, and/or cultural background differs from their own, which I liked; I also liked that the annoying insistence on reproducing every "er," "uh," and other vocal tick is not so faithfully adhered to by McCrory and his cast—a great choice because it focuses us on what the individuals are saying rather than how they are saying it. All five of the actors at the performance I saw (Willis had unfortunately been sidelined by a minor injury that evening) did a fine job of rendering the ideas and views of the diverse characters in this "play" with clarity and energy.
In between the interview excerpts (all of which, by the way, are identified via projection on the rear wall of the theatre), the company performs vignettes that they've written and composed themselves, reflecting ideas they learned from the people they talked to and, I presume, from each other as well. Some of these take the shape of sketches, like one where three church-going black ladies become nearly ecstatic in their enthusiasm for Obama. Others feel like choreopoems, blending movement and words to convey various emotions—joy, hope, fear, anxiety—inspired by Obama's election.
The proceedings play out on a mostly bare stage, framed by some video monitors (used more during the pre-show) and backed by a beautiful, stirring mural by Elizabeth Rossi that encapsulates many of the key ideas traversed in the show.
What struck me most vividly in hearing and seeing this work, now nearly 30 months after the events they chronicle, is how hopeful so many of us in this nation were back then, and how that contrasts with the national mood today. McCrory writes in his Director's Note in the program that he views this play as "a call to action for us to reflect and continually fight for the American promise." My own hope is that with this work and whatever follows, these earnest young artists of Movement Theatre are able to do exactly that, and to steer clear of the cynicism and anomie that has seemingly rendered so much of the American polity inert in the face of serious threats to the freedoms we take for granted.