Tedford Stage, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, February 10–12, 16–19, 2017
By Yuko Kurahashi / HowlRound
In collaboration with Ping Chong and Talvin Wilks, the Department of Theatre and Dance at Wake Forest University Winston-Salem, North Carolina, staged Collidescope 3.0: Adventures in Pre-and Post-Racial America in February 2017 at the Tedford Stage. Written by Chong and Wilks and directed by Chong, Collidescope 3.0 uses movement, video projections, and a collaged and collided soundscape to explore black and white relations in American history. Set in a space ship, Collidescope 3.0’s characters are aliens who take an anthropological look at the human race in the United State from 1775 to the present.
In the prologue, a group of the aliens are examining the murder scene of Trayvon Martin. In contrast to this prologue, the epilogue presents a ritual of commemoration for all African Americans who have fallen victim to racially motivated violence.
The historical events and incidents between the prologue and epilogue include the 1898 “coup d’état” in Wilmington, North Carolina, instigated by the Southerners including Hugh MacRae of Wilmington; the Ossian Sweet Trials (Detroit, 1925–26) narrated by Sweet’s lawyer Clarence Darrow; the lynching of ten men and one woman in Book and Loudes Counties, Georgia in 1918, as narrated by Walter F. White, Assistant Secretary of the NAACP; the appearance of Paul Robeson at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956; the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ, in 1964; civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer’s testimony about voter registration efforts, their disfranchisement, and her arrest in 1964; and James Baldwin’s lecture at the West Indies Student Center in London in 1968. These historical accounts, some of which are verbatim, reflect how racism is still justified in spite of public awareness of diversity and multiculturalism.
Interspersed in these historical events is the “Hattie Mae story,” a fictional account about an African-American man, Sam, who works as a female domestic for a wealthy white family in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in 1939. Inspired by a radio play Man of All Work written by Richard Wright, Sam manages to work in disguise until the “mister” makes a sexual advance toward him, believing he is a woman. In Collidescope 3.0, the Hattie Mae story is a humorous and sympathetic counterpoint to the historical sections.
According to scenic designer Dahlia Al-Habieli, the production team of Collidescope 3.0 worked from all the architectural elements of the previous production, Collidescope 2.0, which was produced in 2016, designed by Mimi Lien. The stage consists of arrays of white and triangular panels which are used as a backdrop. On stage is contemporary furniture such as a simple white metal-framed table and white bar chairs. The geometry of the set explodes outwards beyond the proscenium arch of the Tedford Stage, emphasizing the sense of “collision” of the stories and accounts.
The geometric panels also underscore the “kaleidoscopic” nature of the storytelling. Like a kaleidoscope which contains a fixed number of mirrors and objects, yet produces a seemingly infinite series of patterns and reflections, Collidescope 3.0 reflects shards of history from unusual and unexpected angles.
On the surface of the panels, projection designer Katherine Freer projects words and collages of trees, grasses, flowers, racially charged cartoonish illustrations, and photographs of lynchings. These images serve as abstract concepts, pointing to different perceptions and perspectives of one incident. Kevin Frazier’s lighting design complements Freer’s projection, creating a cold and clinical atmosphere of a pristine laboratory in contrast to the vastness of the universe.
Costume designer Tyler Wilson created earth-tone à-la Star Trek, The Next Generation unitards for the performers who play multiple characters. They wear suits and pants on top of the basic “uniform.” By adding different pieces of costume, the performers are able to shift different layers and levels of performativity. One of the most memorable “costumes” inspired by Chong is a cage crinoline (normally worn under a skirt) for the banquet scene on the eve of the Civil War. Covered with transparent vinyl, the postmodern hoop skirt on top of a unitard underscores the absurdity and horrid reality beneath the “proper” facades of the antebellum South.
Sound designer Jeffrey Dorfman’s soundscape suggests a space ship’s journey by providing “sounds of the earth” and static noises (of radio transmissions). Dorfman was inspired by the Symphonies of the Planet (a NASA project) that evokes an ambience of communications between the crew of the spaceship and the earth and the universe. For the Hattie Mae story, Dorfman uses a nostalgic and sorrowful urban tune of Regina Carter’s “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy” and Wallace Willis’s Negro Spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” alluding to tenement life as well as underlining the power and persistence of African-Americans.
The ending of this piece is serene and yet powerful, illuminating the central thread of the play—how racism has manifested itself in different historical paradigms. A number of racially motivated violent incidents and the victims’ names are projected on the entire backdrop, in Chong’s words, to “convey to the audience the massive extent of the ongoing crime of murdering black people.” The performers bring in lit candles, placards with the names and photographs of victims, stuffed animals, and dolls. The white chair with flowers and lights serves as a shrine. As the stage gets darker, the image of the earth appears and gets smaller, suggesting the mission of the aliens is completed and their space ship is on its way to outer space.
The performers who are students at Wake Forest University are remarkable. Their ensemble performance uses both stylistic and realistic acting approaches to underscore poignant messages, humor, and humanity in the script. The cross-gender and cross-racial casting challenges the “normalcy” of realism, unravelling the issues of race in the past, present, and future.
Collidescope 3.0 is the third version of Collidescope which Chong and Wilks originally conceived, developed, and staged at the University of Maryland in 2014 in collaboration with the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ graduate and undergraduate designers and performers. This original work was inspired (and incensed) by the murder of Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida, 2012). Collidescope 2.0, an updated version in which Chong and Wilks integrated a series of historical events from Western Massachusetts, was presented at the University of Massachusetts in 2016.
In 1962, when Wake Forest University’s Board of Trustees voted to end racial segregation, and the university became the South’s first major private university to do so. Campus dialogues about diversity continue and their collaboration with Chong and Wilks attests to the faculty and students’ commitment to the cause.
This piece, “Collidescope 3.0: Adventures in Pre-and Post-Racial America” by Yuko Kurahashi was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on May 20, 2017 as Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0)