However, the script by Katie Pedro, which has been reworked by Troy Foundry’s David Girard and Philadelphia-based director Niya Colbert, is the real norm breaker. The absurdist work allows two characters, homeless siblings named Sister (played by Angelique Powell) and Brother (played by Iniabasi Nelson) to exist out of time and in shifting context.
We spoke to Powell about the challenge of taking on this kind of work during a time when the entire world exists in a state of extreme anxiety and a kind of unnerving unreality.
David Howard King: What was it like for you to take on this kind of complex work for what I assume is the first time you’ve performed in front of a live audience since the pandemic started in March?
Angelique Powell: “ It is basically the first time I’ve performed to a live audience since March, but I have been performing at protests and online. Obviously, they are not the same, but it is using the muscle. And during this weird time it’s been an important outlet–to have a space for creativity. I’m an arts administrator by profession, but an artist first and foremost, and I’ve had to lean into my creative side even more so during the pandemic. So that work helped me prepare for it, but the headspace is totally different.
DHK: And what has it been like to construct a live work with the parameters dictated by the pandemic?
AP: Our rehearsals are outside so that is different. We are tested for COVID weekly on a rolling basis and we’ve tried to the best of our ability to create a bubble with the kind of good faith that if one gets COVID, not only would it shut down the show but it would not reflect well on the arts in general. It’s our responsibility; we can’t allow that to happen, so we’ve all seriously limited our outside interactions. I haven’t seen my nephew or a single member of my family since the process started. I actually woke up this morning and got back negative test results. So that was good!
DHK: So on top of the pandemic and the procedures involved in protecting the participants and the audience, you’re working with a text that is clearly challenging, and it seems like it almost seizes on the already off-kilter vibe of what has become our everyday lives in this pandemic. What is that like?
AP: It is a difficult text, right? It doesn’t lend itself to easy digestion. My character doesn’t just tell people what the story is. It’s an absurdist play and I have to be very nuanced as an actor to build who I am as the character. I have to have faith in the audience and myself. Everything I do has to have strong intentions. It’s both difficult and very easy at the same time. For Troy Foundry this production is as close to a straight play as it gets. But it was scary, and even before I auditioned I was uncertain whether I should take it on. But I’ve always heard that if something scares you you should absolutely do it. I let go of what I looked like and what people might think about it and leaned into having fun and it got easy.”
DHK: You’re also confronting the audience with uncomfortable truths about race and poverty.
AP: The play is about these two homeless children with no definition of how old they are. My character doesn’t see the world as it exists, but my brother and costar sees the world as it is and realizes they are homeless. He’s trying to protect Sister, so really he’s both brother and parent. Sister protects her world as it is by doing different rituals, and I connected with that idea because I’ve shielded myself from the world right now. Sister is the only character who was written as a young black woman.
For me this time there was an awareness in the rehearsal period of how heavy it was, and at one point I broke down. I needed it. I had a super actory moment where I had an emotional breakdown due to the work. Just thinking about the fact that these little black kids never just get to be kids, and a lot of times economic disparities exist along with racial prejudice. These children are always aware of it. And it shouldn’t be that white children get to be unaware of it. My heart hurt when Sister got to realize what the world is.
DHK: I’ve read a couple of reviews with critiques that made me think the reviewer specifically was made uncomfortable by those parts. By being confronted by the reality of “the other” and not because of the play’s staging or absurdist traits.
AP: I got feedback from some people that it’s “not my cup of tea.” And it’s clear their mind was not ready yet. I want to say to viewers if it’s not your cup of tea you need to explore why, and it most likely is because you were uncomfortable. You need to examine what made you uncomfortable.
DHK: So you’ve had to contend with weather issues; one performance was canceled due to snow. Do you think the weather has played into the message of the work? Has it made things more difficult?
AP: Honestly I’m used to the weather. I work at Park Playhouse and I’ve performed there, so the atmosphere is familiar. At the same time the message of this play is so vital it makes it OK for me to be risking the elements and suffering cold frigid air. And to have an audience exposed to the elements as well increases the level of vulnerability and connection.
DHK: Obviously winter is close and COVID infections appear to be increasing. What is it like knowing that this is likely the last time you perform to an audience for some time?
AP: It makes me truly sad. There’s been lots of discussion about how the arts are so impacted, the ability to create is so impacted, and how virtual theater is not the same. But as artists, we don’t know how not to create. It’s like breathing. But it’s our responsibility and our due diligence not to have theater now. It’s not realistic to go outside in the coming months, and I truly don’t believe it’s responsible.
There is such an appetite for live entertainment because we’ve all been closed up in our homes. There is such a deep desire for art to help connect, to feel like we are not alone, to distract from all of this shit we feel. There will be virtual performances and at least we will still be creating. So much art will be worked on and perfected during this time.
Tickets for tonight and tomorrow’s 8 PM performance at the E. Stewart Jones parking lot off of 3rd St. in Troy are still available and range from $10-$20. Space is limited.