Curtain Critic: ‘After Orlando’ challenges its audience to remember

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After Orlando is a theater collaboration inspired by the shooting in Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the product of the work of over seventy playwrights. (Courtesy of Jocelyn White)
“After Orlando” is an international theater movement that was created to respond to the shooting in Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. This photo is from an “After Orlando” reading in Philadelphia; Phoenix is staging its own event on Sunday, Jan 29. (Courtesy of Jocelyn White)

Much has happened in the United States since June 12, 2016, and it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day.

A collaboration between theater companies, students and performers both new and seasoned encourages us to remember the 49 people lost seven months ago at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in United States history.

After the tragedy, OBIE award winner Caridad Svich worked with Missing Bolts Productions and NoPassport theatre alliance and press to create “After Orlando: An International Theatre Action.” The group solicited short plays that responded to the shooting. Over 70 three-minute scripts from playwrights around the world, many of them internationally recognized, were submitted. The plays were made available royalty-free to theaters and universities — anyone interested in organizing an event can select 10 to 14 of the plays without paying fees. Since then, selections have been performed in more than 50 theaters and universities around the world.

Robert Kolby Harper, the co-director of Phoenix’s “After Orlando” event and the associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, said co-director Micha Espinosa approached him in the fall with the idea for organizing a reading in downtown Phoenix. Espinosa is an associate professor at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and she was working on “In the Heights” with Harper at the time.

After deciding to embark on the project, Harper said he began reaching out to local groups and individuals whom he thought would be interested in participating, including The Bridge Initiative, the Black Theatre Troupe, Orange Theatre and others.

The end result will be readings of 14 plays from a diverse group of playwrights, performed and directed by local actors and students, this Sunday, Jan. 29. The event will begin with an introduction by Rep. Daniel Hernandez Jr., who is credited to helping save the life of Rep. Gabby Giffords during a 2011 shooting at a constituent event in Tucson. It will end with an original solo dance piece by ASU dance faculty member Marcus White.

Harper said his overall goal was to increase awareness.

“When events like this happen, there’s always a big response to it, and then five months later, people forget it happened,” Harper said. “And I think remembering is the first step. We must remember that these kinds of things are actually part, have become the fabric of our society, and there’s some deeper issues that we must address. And these things will continue to happen until we do.”

One of the 3-minute selections, Monica Palacios’ “Say Their Names,” opens and closes with a chant of the first names of the 49 Pulse shooting victims. Director Johanna Carlisle was eager to participate when Harper first showed her the play.

“You can say a lot in three minutes, and I think that’s what interesting about it,” she said.

Carlisle selected six other cast members with a variety of backgrounds to perform in “Say Their Names,” including two actresses who had worked with Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe, two young actors who attend high school in Casa Grande, a well-known local drag queen and a transgender woman. She stressed the importance of finding “mixed voices, from not just the theatre community, but the Phoenix LGBT community.”

Other selections to be performed include Jordan Tannahill’s “Departure,” which Harper said reads like a last text from a mother or lover. Another, “Gun Collector,” by Nathan Alan Davis, is about “an old bag lady going around collecting guns to get them off the street,” Harper said. Not all of the plays are directly tied to the Orlando event. Instead, they respond to it in different ways—through humor, sorrow, intensity.

“I think theatre reflects where we are as a culture or humanity at the time,” Harper said. “Sometimes it feels historical, but it’s always contemporary, because human nature is human nature, no matter what era it’s in… it’s important to use your art, whether it’s theatre, or whatever, to reflect the struggles of the day, because that’s how we document it.”

The “After Orlando” event is free and general admission at Phoenix Theatre, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. The show will begin at 6 p.m.

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