A “seemingly guilty mass-murdering white supremacist terrorist” is the phrase dramaturg Alan Katz uses to describe the character at the heart of “The Word and the Wasteland, a full-length play receiving a fine production at this year’s Source Festival.
The Word and the Wasteland is a commentary for our times. It is written by Timothy Guillot a talented playwright from the generation who first came to know of terror right here in their own backyard; perhaps while they were in a high school class room one morning in September 2001 as a plane slammed into the Pentagon.
Guillot is a recipient of a 2011 Kennedy Center Musical Theatre Award for Listen to me among other awards and accolades. If it matters, it is of interest to me and unless I have this wrong, Guillot currently lives in Pentagon City just a few minute walk to the Pentagon memorial for the victims of that day.
Now for those who may be from the Boomer generation and interested in social justice issues, a comparison for The Word and the Wasteland comes to mind. It is with The Ox-Bow Incident, that 1943 black-and-white movie about mob justice and what comes after. The movie was based upon the 1940 Western by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
The sharply pointed, well-crafted production of The Word and the Wasteland is directed by Joshua W. Kelley. He is, also, apparently, a member of the new generation sweeping across the DC area, and the United States. His directorial touch shows him facile and secure with contemporary technology, the look and feel of social media, unfettered by old theatrical conventions. Kelley grounds the audience emotionally into the production, not to be mere on-lookers. He clearly wants the audience to interact as he stages the show as an alley. The action taking place on a long, slightly lifted stage, with the audience on two horizontal risers facing each other. The lighting forces the audience not only to “see” the actors, but “see” each other’s reactions. There are projected feeds of news commentary high up on three walls.
So, now more details about the play. Benjamin Harding is accused of committing a large scale terrorist action, killing hundreds. It is the most devastating act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11. Harding is in FBI custody and makes a rather unique request. He wants to meet in person with a young hip-hop poet, and also write his own poetry to be read in public. It is a WTF moment. Two FBI agents are caught unsure what should be done and verbally fight among themselves. Slowly, ever so slowly things become clearer even as social media lights up, and the cable news pontificators’ bloviate. Will a second bombing happen? What is the best way to proceed? Is force legitimate to get to the truth?
The Word and the Wasteland cast includes a stunning portrayal of the accused Benjamin Harding by Joshua Simon. With few lines of dialogue, Simon is the most demonstrative actor in the production. In his orange jump suit, close cropped hair, 2-day old scrawny beard, slim presence, his demeanor is like an observing cat. He gives off clues always in the moment. His mannerisms include a slightly titled-downward, almost curled head as he looks upward over his dark eye lashes giving off quiet venom. Or is it venom? Is he what he initially seems?
A nuanced Tamieka Chavis is the hip-hop artist slowly finding her way in a confused situation as the FBI forces her to take a position while the social media world is green-eyed with envy of her new celebrity. Chavis’s readings of her “own” poetry, and that of the accused Harding are ones with emotional and lyrical, if not spiritual.
Others in the cast include Greg Thompson, as a hot-headed, insecure White male FBI agent who takes calls from his 4-year-old daughter Rose at the most inopportune times. There is Sarah Ferris, as a newish FBI agent trying to make her way in a male-dominated world. Her character’s mis-steps come easy as she moves from straight-shooter, all business FBI agent, to flirty FBI agent working to get information to crack the case.
And then there is Zach Bopst, as the older brother to Simon’s character. He is one complicated dud with plenty of secret. Finally, there is an ensemble of folk playing smug news commenters, supercilious “experts” and covetous faces speaking to the digital world in tight shots reminiscent of computer/smart phone screens.
One additional stylish playwright’s touch. There are secrets and mysteries everywhere including the meaning of phrases from poems such as, “My brother was my valley.” It is a social network crowd that has the necessary wisdom to find meanings and save lives.
Overall, The Word and the Wasteland hits its marks. Future productions can be expected to smooth away some awkward, “scratch of the head” characters depictions and complex psychological motivations for each of the characters; some of which just don’t seem to add to the forward progress of the play.
As sophisticated entertainment for those wanting to look deeply into the abyss of current times when videos of violence and death go viral, it is about time theater, from new playwrights, takes its place to explain what is going on, “for what it’s worth.”
As the play ends, the audience is asked to remember what they have witnessed in a final screened live video camera feed. Again from dramaturg, Katz: “The Word and the Wasteland holds a mirror up to modern mobs, showing us that the monster is not just the murderer or the media that glorifies him, but that the monster is within us all.”
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Word and the Wasteland is performed on June 13, 21 and 26, 2015 as a part of the Source Theatre Festival 2015, at The Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street. NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.
Magic Time! ’The Word and the Wasteland’ at The Source Festival by John Stoltenberg.