February brings a new play to Annex Theatre, co-produced by Brownbox Theatre, Black Like Us by Rachel Atkins. Annex says that while its scheduling during Black History Month is intentional, it is “more than race… of the sweet, complex, and exasperating relationships that exist between sisters…The history of the Central District and the Civil rights movement in this city are woven into the narrative.”
Rachel reports that as many as 3 million people have seen her work presented around the country, but most people in Seattle aren’t even aware of the (local) company. Living Voices focuses on social justice issues of many sorts: civil rights, women’s suffrage, Japanese American internment, the Holocaust (Anne Frank), immigration. All their scripts are written by Atkins and then integrated with video or archive photos, and the actor interacts with voices from the past.11th and Pike’s Annex is no stranger to new plays, many of its presentations deliberately chosen from local playwriting submissions in a hotly contested annual company debate. Nor is Rachel Atkins a stranger to playwriting, with a long history as a writer and teacher and 20 years as a script writer for Living Voices, historically-based multimedia one-person theatrical events.
“This play is about families and sisters,” Atkins said. “I wrote the play so it could be double-cast but (director) Jose Amador decided we would keep individual roles for four African American women instead of two, so there would be a maximum opportunity for more actors of color, since there are so few on stage, often.”
Atkins said this work is also purely female. “The relationships they have with each other have nothing to do with men,” she said. “I’ve gotten good feedback about that. ‘Hey, none of their problems have to do with if they’re going to get some man or keep some man.’”
Atkins said she turned to her own background to write characters of a different race. “My parents are Jewish but my step-dad, who raised me was black,” she said. “I grew up in the ‘70s when a mixed-race family was not nearly as common as now. I grew up aware of those issues and questions about race and it was a complicated situation for my mom and step-dad.”
“The play is from 1950s until today, so characters in the ‘50s speak differently than contemporary characters,” Atkins said of the language she used. “Part of this is about the assumptions we make about people and these characters needed to sound like themselves, whatever their skin color. Also, the play is set in Seattle and there is a regional sound to it.”
“I had a shorter version of this play run last year and black audience members actually talked to the characters,” she said. “I don’t think any white audience members did that. Tyrone (Brown, artistic director of Brownbox Theatre), my director, did mention that might happen because black audience members might have something to say about what was happening on stage.”
American folk tales Also playing until February 26th on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Annex is Story and Song. Bret Fetzer performs two American folk tales with backing a small group of singers a la the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?