After my first expertise of Theater for One — again in pre-pandemic days, when it meant sharing a small sales space with an actor who carried out a brief play for you — I imagined it as what velocity relationship can be in case you fell in love with everybody you met. Sitting that near an actor’s face, listening to a narrative I couldn’t keep away from being a part of as a result of nobody else was there to listen to it, I used to be immediately drawn into the uncanny, enraptured collaboration of theater, with its roots in campfire tales and neighborhood bonding and a father or mother’s hushed voice at bedtime.
So after I realized that Theater for One was returning for six Thursdays this summer time, in socially distanced kind on-line, I anxious that its contract with the viewers can be damaged. I’d attended sufficient Zoom conferences to know that “eye contact” had change into metaphorical, a digital phantasm mediated in each instructions by the laptop’s digicam. How typically I’d tried to wink or wave at a colleague, solely to understand I used to be signaling 40 folks indiscriminately — and reaching none.
But Theater for One, the brainchild of the scenic designer Christine Jones, seems to be extra adaptable than I assumed. In “Here We Are,” its first on-line undertaking, it has discovered workarounds for a few of Zoom’s most alienating points, in the course of creating not only a substitute model of the earlier expertise however, in some methods, a transferring enchancment on it.
Its theatrical core is unchanged. Just as in Times Square or Zuccotti Park or some other location the place T41 (as it’s abbreviated) used to carry out in particular person, you start by getting in line — solely now the line is digital. Prompts like “What space are you creating in your heart today?” open conversations amongst nameless theatergoers in the queue, who kind solutions that present up and disappear like fireflies on the display screen. (Those solutions are way more revealing than they might be in actual life.) After some time, when a slot opens, you’re whisked into a personal house, not understanding whom or what you will notice there; the assignations are random.
I caught 4 of the eight “microplays,” averaging about seven minutes every, that T41 commissioned for “Here We Are.” (The different 4 embody works by Lynn Nottage and Carmelita Tropicana.) In honor of the centennial of ratification of the 19th Amendment, and in support of Black Lives Matter, all were written, directed, designed and performed by people of color, most of them women. The monologues are variously witty, worshipful, angry and determined as they take on subjects as widespread as writer’s block, political action, foster care and suffrage itself.
If no single theme unites them, they do share, as the omnibus title suggests, an intense feeling of the immediate present. In Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Thank You Letter,” a South Asian woman played by Mahira Kakkar writes to Representative John Lewis shortly after his death in July, in gratitude for his lesser-known work on immigration. And in Regina Taylor’s “Vote! (the black album),” Taylor plays a Black woman planning to honor her forebears, who dressed in their Sunday best to cast their ballots, by putting on a mask to mail hers.
The pandemic is a given in all the plays but generally takes second place to other concerns. In Lydia R. Diamond’s “whiterly negotiations,” directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, a “crazy-ish Black woman writer” played by Nikkole Salter vents on Zoom about a white editor’s microaggressions. But neither her dudgeon nor the Zoom itself turn out to be what they first seem; in a code-switching coda, Diamond suggests just how confusing our world’s new terrain can be.
Part of the cleverness — and effectiveness — of “whiterly negotiations” comes from not knowing who you, the viewer, alone in a virtual space with Salter, are meant to be in the story. If you are white, as I am, you might wonder whether you are standing in for the white editor, which is uncomfortable but eye-opening. If you are Black you might think you are a friend listening for the umpteenth time to the character’s spiel. One thing you can’t ever feel, because Salter looks right at you, is that you are a disinterested bystander.
That dynamic more or less informs all four plays I saw. In “Vote!” I felt like both a generalized ear and, because Taylor is such a compelling actor, the specific recipient of her intended message. (She is beautifully directed by Taylor Reynolds.) In “Thank You Letter,” Kakkar’s character immediately enlists you in her story by thanking you for listening. “Hi I don’t know you but I’m going to talk if it’s okay?!” she says. “I come from a long line of nontalkers.”
The conflict I have often felt between being an observer and a participant in the stories I go to the theater to see is intensified and finally obviated by T41’s approach. You have to be both, at least in part so as not to seem rude to the actor, who is being both for you. I felt this most acutely in Stacey Rose’s “Thank You for Coming. Take Care,” directed (like “Thank You Letter”) by Candis C. Jones. Patrice Bell plays a woman serving a long sentence in prison; I played, and you will too if you see it, a foster parent who has been raising the woman’s daughter for two years and now hopes to adopt her.
“You don’t look anything like I expected,” Bell’s character says at the start. “Like your hair, I thought it’d be” — and here the script instructs her to describe a kind of hair that’s “opposite to” whatever yours is. “I thought it’d be blond” is what she said to me.
“Thank You for Coming,” so specific and evenhanded, would have been a heartbreaker in any format. But especially now, in moments like that, enhanced by terrific acting, you feel seen in a way that has been too often absent these six months — and maybe longer. Intimacy in the live theater is always touch-and-go. On display alone in our homes, we are much more seen than usual.
Seen and sometimes implicated. After all, everyone is part of everyone else’s story. In our isolation, it can be hard to remember that. From its title on, “Here We Are” is not about to let us forget.
Theater for One: Here We Are
Performances each Thursday through Sept. 24; theatreforone.com.