They are holding each other at the end of a long day, talking the way people talk when their lives fit together. The rhythm moves easily between them from banter to reflection, humor gliding on trust.
Over the speakers a woman is singing low and strong, a voice like Emel Mathlouthi, Rhiannon Giddens, “an original jazzy, soulful groove,” says playwright Loy A. Webb, “overflowing with the idealistic love we all dream about.”
And in this warm and quiet room near the University of Chicago, the world can threaten. When an anniversary gift leads them to reveal some of the hardest times in their pasts, from long before they met, two people who love each other find themselves fighting to hold onto their relationship.
Elle Borders and Brandon Green, acclaimed Boston actors and a couple in real life, will appear as Genesis and Rashad in WAMTheatre’s digital reading of Webb’s acclaimed and Outer Critics Circle nominated play, The Light.
Director Colette Robert remembers how she felt seeing it for the first time in 2019, Off Broadway. She was sitting in the front row, she says, and she felt as though she was in the living room with them, in that Hyde Park condo on the shore of Lake Michigan. The actors seemed so close to her, she could have been sharing an evening with friends, and she felt that sense of intimacy powerfully as their conversation moved into deep waters.
She feels as though she knows these characters, she said, as she looked forward to beginning rehearsal with Borders and Green on their own production.
As a director and playwright from Los Angeles and New York, Robert comes to WAM from many recent projects, from Showing Up, an evening of music and performance inspired by photographer Accra Shepp’s portraits of Black Lives Matter activists, to Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays, a new work in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s First Light Festival of plays “that question and broaden the view of science in the popular imagination.”
The Light comes home to her.
“I feel like I know Genesis intimately,” she said, “and I understand her deeply.”
She understands Genesis as a woman loving a man, wanting to trust a new relationship, and as a professional woman with a passion for her work. Genesis is leading a new charter school to give her young black students a place where they can learn with confidence. She is facing hard questions with a strong sense of fairness, and she is teaching Rashad’s daughter, Amaya.
Rashad thanks her for it.
“She never ceases to amaze me,” he says in the play, marveling at his daughter’s excitement as she tells him her newest discoveries about dinosaurs, and places and leaders in this country, worlds she and Genesis explore together gleefully while he is at work.
Robert’s parents both taught school, and she feels she knows Genesis as a principal and a passionate, imaginative teacher, because she knows that kind of vibrant powerhouse.
Genesis has survived pain, and she has the courage to call out cowardice, to insist on honesty and to protect herself. Fear and exhaustion cut deep, especially here with the one person she thought she would not need to hide from.
And Rashad, trying to express and prove himself and grapple with his own past, will come face to face his own assumptions about who gets listened to and who does not, what it means to listen to someone and what it means to dismiss them — and what it means, in his words and hers, in words that echo, to tell someone they are worth marching for.
It is a question that sounds loudly today, Webb told Kingston as they talked about her play. Genesis is calling for respect and recognition, a basic human response, and the consequences when people refuse are terrifyingly and daily real to her, as they are for Webb, and she has heard the same from people who have seen the play.
“During the pandemic, a young woman named Oluwatoyin Salau, who was an activist, was sexually assaulted and murdered,” Webb told Kingston. “In the midst of the protest for Black Lives this summer, her death made us question, do we value Black women’s lives even as they are on the frontlines protesting for justice for those killed at the hands of police?”
“You shouldn’t have to love someone to feel a connection with them,” Robert said, to feel pain when they are hurt, to feel outraged when they are wronged.
Rashad has survived his own injustices, and at the same time he is grappling now with his own mistakes.
“We see a man staying and listening to a woman,” said WAM associate artistic director Talya Kingston. “That’s important. It’s so hard to hear things you don’t want to hear.”
She finds insight too in seeing Rashad’s point of view. It is one of the strengths of the play, for her, that in the hard debates she can so often understand both perspectives and feel drawn to both characters, and find strength in the ways they witness and love each other.
Rashad is a firefighter who went to college on a football scholarship. He is raising his daughter and caring for his mother — he has always felt a commitment to care for her. She left medical school when his father died, when he was younger than his daughter is now.
Genesis gives him an anchor in her friendship and strength. Until he met her, he says, he had been working hard just to survive, and when they met he knew he needed more — he needed a woman who could live with “a sense of vigor, passion, and urgency that went beyond survival to thrive.”
“‘… (I was) starving for a woman whose intelligence could inspire me to pick up more books about politics, history, art, the plight of our people in America and the world at large, just so I could keep up with her brilliance.’”
Genesis remembers the day he earned her trust, on trip to New Orleans, after a week of dancing all night to the jazz bands on Frenchman Street. On the last day, pouring rain keeps them indoors, and when she would have turned off the lights, he looks at her, clearly and honesty, with care.
‘And that was scary. You not just looking at me, but actually seeing me. But there was something about you that made me feel secure … And with each kiss I felt you were saying, ‘this-flaws-and-all Gen, is the Gen I want.’
“Loy writes with so much compassion for both characters,” Robert said, and for her the journey of this evening is heartbreaking, fascinating, overwhelming. They are both fighting for their own sense of truth, and to see them working through it, “and I root for them, the whole play.”
“Colette is very collaborative,” Kingston said, looking forward to Robert’s work with Borders and Green, watching the actors carefully to pull out what she sees.
WAM’s artistic director, Kristen van Ginhoven, has wanted to work with Robert for years, Kingston said, admiring her work — Robert is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Old Vic/New Voices Network and Lincoln Center Director’s Lab.
And they are all excited to work with Borders and Green, well-known in the Boston theatre scene, most recently at the Huntington Theatre, Borders in Lila Rose Kaplan’s We All Fall Down, and Green in Lynn Nottage Sweat, in a company that won the Elliot Norton Award for Best Ensemble. They have performed together, including in the Front Porch Arts Collective/ Underground Railway production of Black Odyssey, Boston and Company One/Arts Emerson’s An Octoroon and We Are Proud to Present…
Kingston finds The Light beautiful and rare in its intimacy. Webb, a journalist television writer and attorney, has won wide acclaim with her first play, Kingston said, and to her the play speaks powerfully to the challenges of this time in this country.
People are trying to look ahead, she said — after the last year, after an election in a pandemic and broad debates across the country on longstanding iniquities in national systems.
“What (Genesis and Rashad) are doing, grappling with their pasts to move forward, is what we’re doing,” she said.
And it moves her, after so many virtual performances with performers at a necessary distance, to see to actors touch each other. As a couple, Borders and Green can rehearse and perform together, even in Covid, she said. In their own new home, they are creating a set in their living room, working with WAM on lighting and design and music.
They have performed together before, she said, and have wanted to perform characters who are a couple. They understand each other, as artists and as partners, and she is thankful they can share the intensity after working through an emotionally raw scene together.
“They will take care of each other,” she said.