by Jasmine J. Mahmoud
There was no campfire at “The Campfire Festival.” Rather, warmth came from other sources: Rheanna Atendido’s energizing voice in duet with an amplified acoustic guitar, Dedra Woods’s staging of her and her mother’s memories, storytelling about ghosts and pandemic boredom and political change, and the enthusiastic incredulity of safely and finally engaging in live theatre again alongside other strangers.
Last Friday evening, I nervously walked north through the very green Columbia Park, hugged by Alaska Street and Rainier Avenue South. What would this post(ish) pandemic theater look, sound, and feel like? Upon nearing the outdoor box office table, I viewed the outdoor theater setup on an upwards sloping lawn, where empty hula hoops lay on the grass designating socially distant seating clusters. Once seated, I stared at the facade of Rainier Arts Center, the stage for this theatrical event. There, affixed on white columns were blue banners with the words “Create,” “Celebrate,” “Perform,” or “Connect,” messages that further amplified this theatrical event.
Produced by The Williams Project — the South Seattle-based theater company founded in 2014 by Ryan Guzzo Purcell — “The Campfire Festival” (which runs through June 5) brings together four new 30-minute one-act solo performances by Seattle-based artists. Two acts are staged each night. I attended “Program B” with one solo work by Justin Huertas performed by Rheanna Atendido, and another solo work by Dedra D. Woods. “You are the second audience seeing live theater in over a year!” Purcell exburentally opened, welcoming the 20 of us socially distanced on the grass. Soon after, the first performance began.
“Hello there!” Rheanna Atendido sang ardently, while standing at a microphone in a puffy pink coat and strumming an amplified acoustic guitar. Through song, she introduced her character (Jo), setting (pandemic-era apartment), and who she was saying hello to (assorted ghosts in her life). This was Justin Huertas’s “Hell Here,” a musical set in a Capitol Hill apartment, which unfolded with so much delight and discovery. More than series of songs or a concert, Huertas’s “Hell Here” told a relatable story about grief, channels of communication, and relationships, and did so threaded with Filipino culture. There was charm in Atendido’s bright voice as she sang about pandemic boredom and eerie yet familiar ghosts. There was relatability in themes of being stuck at home. There was discovery in how certain lyrics were spelled aloud, quickly changing meanings. And there was process in how Atendido performed this expansively creative musical while standing on a sparsely set stage, turning the pages of Huertas’s script and score to progress this play.
After this lustrous opening and then a brief intermission, the second solo act by Dedra D. Woods began. Wearing a white blouse and black pants, Woods entered the outdoor stage with poise and care, walking to the music stand and microphone, and sitting on a wooden stool at the stage’s edge. Titled and actually “30 Minutes,” Woods’s performance also culled from the past year — the pandemic, protests for racial justice, and closure of live theatre.
Near the beginning of her act, Woods reminded us of how the pandemic put her career on pause. One of her last roles was in The Revolutionists at Arts West, where she played Marianne Angelle, a fictional 18th century Haitian rebel alongside three white actors portraying French historical figures. (I saw this production in January 2020, so it was surreal and a joy to again see Woods on stage.) In March 2020, Woods was slated to act in Pipeline by the Detroit-born playwright Dominique Morisseau, but the production was canceled as the pandemic began.
Detroit is also Woods’ hometown and anchored so much of her one-act. In “30 Minutes,” she presented stories of where she lived and moved, and what she witnessed as a child in Detroit. Throughout, Woods wove in audio excerpts from an interview with her mother about the 1967 riots. Her mother’s voice was both the glue that held this brilliant performance together and the compass that guided this mesmerizing work to compel attention. In staging alongside the recording of her mother’s voice, Woods connected the politics, geography, and spatial racism of Detroit to Seattle, then and now.
Seattle also forcefully framed Woods’s performance. As I listened to the sound of Woods’s and her mother’s voices, I also heard nearby sounds — the engines of cars driving by and winds blowing. Much like Atendido’s pairing of voice and guitar, the city’s noises of hums and breezes and movements accompanied Woods’s stories. So did the location. As Woods described the 2020 protests in Seattle, I thought about my nearby experience in Rainier Valley. As Woods talked about an anti-racist theater training on Zoom, and the frustrating actions of some white participants, I thought about this neighborhood, Columbia City, where I lived 11 years ago, where a neighbor once mistook me for an intruder after I entered my own home, where two years ago, I witnessed a white man call the police on a Black man for standing outside the PCC. Woods’s performance invited me to think about Seattle’s role in racial justice and in theater.
And yet, Woods repeated the following line throughout her act: “This is not a performance.” With those words, I thought immediately of definitions of theater as representational (the actor is portraying a character) and performance art as presentational (the performance artist is portraying themself). I thought about Woods’s career as a Black theater artist who often represents other Black women on stage, and what it meant for her to be on this stage at this time in a performance framed as “not one.” Woods later told us about her love of watching theater performers make food on stage, and I thought about this and her questions to us: “Why do Black people need to quantify our happiness?” “How do I get to laugh?” Her act prompted careful reflection with her: How do we read Black women? How are their imaginations, memories, and stories valued in theater and in life? How are we valuing Woods’s and her mother’s memories and stories at this time?
“The Campfire Festival” includes the other two performances, “Storytime: Good Grief” by Aaron Martin Davis Norman and “Dirty Dancing” by Maggie L. Rogers; each night two of the four take place in various dyads. Later in June, Purcell continues this festival with the “Wealth Walk,” a socially distant theatrical walking tour that starts at Franklin High School.
Despite these skilled solo performances, I did miss seeing multiple actors on stage as is so often associated with theater. Yet, each solo work did make room for talking with others: Jo talked with her ghosts, ex, and aunt, and Dedra Woods with her mother, cities, theater community, and us. In some ways, the evening didn’t feel like my memory of what theater used to be. But in other ways, through care, experimentation, process, presence, and warmth (despite chilly evening temperatures), the festival made new, necessary space for theater as we continue to figure things out emerging from the pandemic.
The Campfire Festival runs through June 5, and the Wealth Walk through June 20. Tickets range from $0 (pay what you can) to $50. Make sure to bring your mask (required while outside), as well as an empty bladder (no on-site bathrooms), layers for warmth, and if available, folding lawn chairs or a blanket to sit on.
For tickets and more information visit https://www.thewilliamsproject.org
Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.
📸 Featured Image: The Williams Project’s “The Campfire Festival.” (Photo: Michael B. Maine)
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