From a disturbing portrait of late-capitalist dystopia to an emotional debate about Facebook ethics, Plan-B Theatre’s final 2020-21 production covers a lot of ground in its one-hour runtime. The audio production series Local Color debuts new short plays from Plan-B’s Theatre Artists of Color Workshop. With Local Color you get four plays for the price of one—and that price, by the way, is whatever you want it to be. (But after a grueling year for local artists, we should all pay as generously as we can afford to.)
The short plays work well in an audio format—as months of streaming Netflix taught us, something about at-home binging warps our attention spans. Director Jerry Rapier led each of the four casts through Zoom rehearsals and recorded the production in at-home recording studios. Taken together, the four plays touch on some similar ideas, but what stands out is the differences between each vision—and how rare it is to see these specific perspectives in Utah productions.
In Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin’s DOLs, two young girls, Adriane (Darby Mest) and Julie (Katie Jones Nall) meet at Wyman Park in 1980s Baltimore. They are strangers, but quickly bond as nerdy girls who cut class to spend more time at the library. Julie introduces Adriane to Heidi, (Yolanda Strange) a motherlike figure who is part of “Daughters of Lesbians,” a local socialist activist group. The play, based on Darby-Duffin’s own childhood, is full of lived-in details that could only come from her. Mest, who is Darby-Duffin’s daughter, is a particular highlight playing the role based on her mother. After a fairly abrupt ending, I wished there was more to listen to—the play’s single scene feels like a starting place, and there is plenty of room for this play to further explore its compelling characters.
Guise by Chris Curlett is an interesting companion to DOLs, and not just because their titles accidentally-on-purpose combine to reference a classic musical. The two plays explore the social dynamics of male and female friendships, and while “DOLs” is a lighthearted comedy, Guise considers the darker side of these relationships. Joey (Lonzo Liggins) is adjusting to life in a mostly white town, which leaves him with frequent panic attacks. In a locker room, he confronts his white friend Rick (Brian Kocherhans) about his lack of support and racial awareness. Then, a mutual friend Brett (Tyler Fox) joins in with his own locker room talk—a casually bilious mix of sexism, homophobia and racism. Because it’s still rare to see male characters talk about their feelings with this level of vulnerability, Guise feels refreshing. While Joey is the center of the play, Rick also stands out as a smart portrayal of a well-meaning white guy who isn’t always clued in to his privilege and casual racism.
My personal favorite of the four, Suicide Box depicts a near-future world that feels a lot like the present day. Tatiana Christian’s play follows Lilly (Kandyce Marie), who is barely surviving a demeaning customer service job. As Lilly deals with overly chipper coworkers and rude callers, her “tethered” (Mest) narrates her darkest thoughts with a mix of sarcasm and casual self-destruction. Meanwhile, mysterious “suicide boxes” have begun to appear everywhere—people go in, press a button and never come out. Sound Designer Cheryl Ann Cluff and Sound Engineer David Evanoff cleverly use vocal effects to differentiate between Lilly’s dialogue and inner thoughts, and I would love to see how a director would stage the play for an in-person audience. In just 11 minutes, Christian effectively builds the dystopian setting, and her critiques of American work culture are cutting and spot-on. The Black Mirror-esque scenario remains bleak until the very end, but Christian’s sharp writing and knack for dark comedy prevents the play from becoming overwhelmingly heavy.
Organic by Tito Livas dramatizes an unfortunately all too relatable phenomenon: petty social media fights. After Michael (Carlos Nobleza Posas) sees a homophic Facebook post from his former coworker Joe (Liggins), he can’t help but rage-comment. The twist: Joe is a closeted gay man who cruises sex apps for casual hookups. Michael’s husband Philip (Fox) advises against making rash judgments, but Michael’s very public takedown may have consequences none of the characters can anticipate. The conceit in Organic may be the most simple of all the plays, but if you worry that discussions of social media posts sound too dry, Livas wrings plenty of complexity from this simple scenario. The play earnestly asks what responsibilities queer people, both in and out of the closet, have to others in their community, and I finished Organic feeling sympathy for all three characters.
Local Color is a welcome and necessary platform for artists of color, counteracting the white-dominated theater community in Utah. “Over the years, a lot of times I’ll get a call because [theaters] know I’m a Black actress,” explained Darby-Duffin in an interview with Salt Lake. “We wanted to be more than that.” For both the writers and actors, this series provides a too-rare opportunity to present characters of color that go beyond supporting roles and easy stereotypes.