Donald Munro

With a focus on labor unions and police violence against blacks, college theater gets provocative

Jalen Stewart, from left, Ashlyn Davis (back to camera), Nwachukwu Oputa and Joshua Slack in “Hands Up.”
Jalen Stewart, from left, Ashlyn Davis (back to camera), Nwachukwu Oputa and Joshua Slack in “Hands Up.” Special to The Bee

This is a weekend in Fresno for theater that will make you think and feel about two pressing issues of the day.

At Fresno State, the theater department kicks off its 2016-17 season with “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” a 2015 play inspired by events in Ferguson, Mo., about police violence within the black community, a theme so relevant that it seems like breaking news. At Fresno City College, the season-opening play, “Waiting for Lefty,” is a lot older, but its Depression-era subject matter about working people in a fight for a living wage also has a keen contemporary relevance.

Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of “Hands Up,” and Steven Weatherbee, a cast member in “Waiting for Lefty,” give a rundown on the shows, which both open Friday, Sept. 30:

Fresno State

The play: “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights. 7 Testaments,” written by seven emerging black playwrights (Nathan James, Nathan Yungerberg, Idris Goodwin, Nambi Kelley, NSangou Njikam, Eric Holmes, Dennis A Allen II). Directed by Ellis.

The premise: Told as seven mini “solo shows,” the play was commissioned by The New Black Fest. It explores feelings about the well-being of black people in a culture of institutional profiling. Ellis changed the original structure of the show from individual monologues to ensemble pieces with all the actors helping to tell each story.

Digging deeper: The discussion of police violence leads to other issues important to the black community such as “domestic violence, the exploration of bi-racial and blended family interaction, race vs. the LGBT movement and more,” Ellis says.

Why this show? Ellis says it is “hugely relevant” to the black student body and the community at large. “I knew several months ago the issues of excessive force and the gap in black/white pubic discourse were certainly going to continue,” he says. “It was entirely predictable given the media coverage and third party documentation of these events.” He didn’t anticipate football player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to surface, but it also adds to the discourse, Ellis says.

The impact: Ellis took a scene to a Fresno community center in a predominately black neighborhood on the West Side. The audience responses were explosive. “This population was very much vocal about their kids and grandkids remaining in harm’s way,” he says. “And they also provided a historical context to the recent spate of police brutality with regard to their growing up in the South and facing Southern-like racism in the Valley. Clearly an unintended eye opener.”

Fresno City College

The play: “Waiting for Lefty,” written in 1934 by Clifford Odets. Directed by Janine Christl.

The premise: Inspired by the famous New York taxi strike in the 1930s, the play is set in a union meeting hall. Cab drivers eagerly wait for the arrival of their friend and leader, Lefty Costello, to turn the tide of the meeting in favor of a strike. A series of related vignettes tackle some related issues, including the difficulty of workers to attain a living wage.

The audience: Odets, a famed playwright and director known for his socially relevant dramas, saw “Waiting for Lefty” (his first play) as an immersive audience experience. The audience is meant to feel as if it’s in the union hall as pro-strikers and a group of higher-class individuals hoping to quash the strike square off.

Wait: Just how immersive? It’s more in an inviting and riveting nature, rather than an in-your-face, “no apologies” type of demeanor, says Fresno State theater major Steven Weatherbee, who plays a major character. “No one will be pulled up on the stage, but hey – I wouldn’t be surprised if audience members feel moved to do so themselves, after what they experience,” he says.

Interesting element: Christl has added period songs with live accompaniment that have been rehearsed and polished with collaboration from Lorenzo Bassman, a Juilliard graduate. (Think “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) The music adds a certain urgency in some scenes, Weatherbee says, “and in others a gripping poignancy that matches the mood of others.”

The political message: Every scene has some sort of political or economic message. But just as important is a sense of family and camaraderie. “And if you happen to be “anti-union”, don’t worry – that voice makes clear and compelling arguments in the play as well,” Weatherbee says.

The impact: Socially relevant theater gives audiences a chance to “defragment” a complex issue, Weatherbee says, and provides a vantage point from which to explore a problem. “I feel this is the cornerstone of what makes the art of theater so truly great.”

Hands Up: 7 Playwrights. 7 Testaments

Theater preview

Waiting for Lefty

Theater preview