How do you write dramas about dystopia and alienation in the middle of a pandemic, especially when the people in charge have seemingly signed a blood oath to a nihilist death cult? Isn’t doomscrolling Twitter enough to make most of us imagine the worst?
Two recent streaming productions–Rastus and Hattie by Lisa Langford, courtesy of Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, and Run the Beast Down by Titas Halder with Strawdog–tackle the nature of time, history, historical trauma, and our own interior perceptions of truth, especially when we’re isolated from the world we thought we belonged in. And though both pieces were written before COVID-19, they deliver satisfyingly relevant and mind-bending results, thanks to stellar performances and adroit production values.
Rastus and Hattie
Rastus and Hattie premiered a year ago at the Cleveland Public Theatre and has been reimagined for 16th Street as an audio play, under the direction of Lanise Antoine Shelley. It’s a fitting coda to a year marked by heightened attention to racial justice and institutionalized white supremacy.
Langford was inspired in part by Westinghouse’s 1930s foray into creating prototype robots designed to look like Black men–one of whom was actually named “Rastus” and was also referred to as a “mechanical slave.” As Simone Browne, a professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin notes in a 2017 presentation, Rastus’s cartoonish appearance fit with advertising images and other representations of Black people in popular culture. “These exaggerated representational practices worked to rationalize the economic exploitation of Black domestic workers, as well as those who labored in low-paying conditions in the service sector,” said Browne. (That economic exploitation has come into sharper focus as the pandemic has hit Black essential workers especially hard.)
Here, Rastus and his robot partner, Hattie, are servants in the home of Marlene (Kate Black-Spence) and David (Ryan Kitley). Marlene is best friends from childhood with Needra (Krystel McNeil), a Black scientist researching epigenetics, or the idea that trauma (such as that caused by slavery and racism) can leave a chemical mark on genes that is then passed down through generations. Needra is facing resistance from an adviser on how she’s presenting her findings, and an impending move to a university in Alabama, closer to the ancestral home of her husband Malik (David Goodloe).
The discovery that Marlene and David are using slave robots (which David inherited from his uncle, a researcher at Westinghouse) of course horrifies Needra and makes her question everything about her friendship with Marlene (played with pitch-perfect microaggression by Black-Spence).
But then they all, including Rastus (Colin Jones) and Hattie (Jasmine Bracey), find themselves moving backward in time to 1870 Alabama. And that’s when things get really dicey.
Langford’s script works some of the same sci-fi/horror territory as Octavia Butler’s 1979 masterpiece Kindred, in which a Black woman is repeatedly thrown back to a plantation in slavery-era Maryland, as well as the comic horror of Jordan Peele’s films. The latter comes through particularly in the framing of Marlene and David as “good” liberal white people who can’t see why having slave robots is such a big deal. (“I’m lazy and I’m greedy,” Marlene admits without a shred of guilt or shame.)
But the epigenetics thread weaves itself like a double helix through the story, reminding us that while Langford’s framing may be fantastical, the traumas of racism are not. Yet Needra’s initial impulse to “level the playing field by removing the trauma at a microlevel” may, as she comes to discover, carry its own problematic form of erasure.
It’s possible to just listen to Shelley’s cast on the Vimeo stream and enjoy the beautifully modulated back-and-forth debates and sidebar conversations among the characters. (Sound designer Olanrewaju Adewole and audio engineer Nathan Cox-Reed deserve props.) Langford has an indelible ear for dialogue, and it’s a treat to use our powers of imagination to conjure the contrasting worlds of present and past. But the production is greatly enhanced by the black-and-white illustrations of Roy Thomas (an undergrad from Ball State), who uses a silhouette aesthetic somewhat reminiscent of Kara Walker, but with his own nuanced use of grays that suggest the twilight world of race, science, and interpersonal relationships Langford’s characters are navigating.
Run the Beast Down
The narrator in Halder’s solo play isn’t a robot, but he may remind you of Elliot Alderson, the tormented soul played by Rami Malek in USA Network’s Mr. Robot. Like Elliot, Charlie (Gage Wallace) suffers from crippling paranoia and isolation. He’s lost his job at a London stock trading firm and his girlfriend Alex–though he can’t stop himself from calling her. He’s also haunted by the idea that foxes have taken over his housing estate–a possible holdover from a childhood encounter in the woods near his home.
The show is presented in seven interludes, each introduced with its own title card. (The first, “Peter is Dead,” foreshadows the fate of a cat owned by Mrs. Winter, Charlie’s neighbor, who first warns him about the foxes.) The scenes are shot in separate rooms of a home seemingly under renovation or possibly demolition, with the walls in some cases stripped to the lathes, just as Charlie’s grip on reality also seems to be peeling down to the bones and his apartment becomes more bunker than sanctuary. (Kamille Dawkins’s videography captures the suffocating qualities of Charlie’s environment quite well.)
Wallace delivers a mesmerizing performance (sometimes in extreme close-up) under Elly Green’s precise direction. Like Mr. Robot, Charlie’s story takes place against a backdrop of capitalism melting down, and yet he’s fighting back like a cornered animal. And like Elliot, we’re well aware we’re in the company of a narrator who is beyond unreliable, but who still wins our empathy through his palpable pain. There are echoes of genocidal impulses in the attitudes of Mrs. Winter’s son, who believes the gangs of “feral” children in the neighborhood should be hunted like, well, foxes.
Run the Beast Down is, like Rastus and Hattie, a cunning and cutting parable for these strange days, indeed. v