May 27, 2020

Theater fall lineup examines social issues

"Wonder of the World," one of the plays the Fresno State theater department produced last fall, exhibited the comedic talents of student-actors. Photo by Roe Borunda

“Wonder of the World,” one of the plays the Fresno State theater department produced last fall, exhibited the comedic talents of student-actors. Roe Borunda/The Collegian

Fresno State is in for an exciting theater season this fall, with three diverse offerings that will put audiences on the edge of their seats.

The three plays in production this fall are “The First Breeze of Summer” by Leslie Lee, “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder and “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris.

“I think in terms of, like the community, our goal is to provide entertaining theater that people really like and enjoy,” Theater department chair Melissa Gibson said. “We just want people to have a good time because we think there’s something special about live theater.”

The array of themes in the lineup also gives theater art students a chance to be exposed to various kinds of performances.

“It’s really a big variety of different kinds of theatres, and that’s good for our students because we’re trying to train them to be professionals,” Gibson said. “The idea is they have to learn how to do a whole different bunch of styles of theater.”

The first on the list is “The First Breeze of Summer,” directed by professor Thomas-Whit Ellis. The essence of the play is drawn from the African-American experience, and it was nominated for a Tony Award.

“It tells the story about a family in the racially torn American South – the struggles of a domestic worker as she tries to live in the South and remain as a successful single parent,” Ellis said.

Not only does this play tackle the issue of racism in the South during the 1970s, it also takes on issues of family conflicts. It revolves around the conflicts between the older generation and its children and how the family tries to stay together despite the social injustice at that time.

“It’s a very entertaining examination of family values and family communication and how they try to stay tightknit despite dysfunctional moments, which is normal,” Ellis said.

“The play is not all serious,” Ellis said. “There are some very good comedic moments and a little bit of singing. I, as much as possible, would like to break up the seriousness of racial with a little bit of entertainment.”

The next play, on the lineup is “Our Town”, directed by professor J. Daniel Herring. The play is an American classic that won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Herring described the theme of this play as “the American classic about life, love and loss.” The play is set in a small fictional town called Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire. It follows the everyday lives of two families – the Gibsons and the Webbs – in the early 1900s.

Herring said the uniqueness of this play is the staging. Audiences sit on all four sides of the stage instead of cinema-like seats. This allows audience members to be up close with not only the actors but to each other as well.

Thornton Wilder wanted to avoid masking his play as complete realism, Herring said. It was the writer’s goal to emphasize to his audiences that they were in a theater. Herring wanted to stay true to that goal.

“He [Thornton Wilder] wanted the audience to see theatrical elements in terms of the story telling,” Herring said. “What better kind of space to be than an arena space? When you’re in an arena space, you’re even seeing other audience members because when you are sitting on one side, you see the other three groups.”

With this classic play, Herring wanted his student actors to take risks and chances in making it cutting edge.

“We can explore and experiment how we do things,” he said. “I think it’s important for our students to see another way that ‘Our Town’ can be creative and be produced.”

The last act of the season is “Clybourne Park,” directed by professor Kathleen McKinley. The play won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and a 2012 Tony Award.

“It’s never been performed in Fresno before,” McKinley said. “It’s never been performed in the Central Valley before.”

Although “Clybourne Park” deals with racism, it is played out in a comedic way. The dialogues are sharp-witted. The theme revolves around racial issues faced by Americans in 1959 and and then in 2009.

“In the first act, a lot of the conflict revolves around this white neighborhood dealing with whether they want an African-American family moving in,” McKinley said. “In the second act, it deals with a neighborhood that’s primarily African-American that is trying to decide whether they want a wealthier white couple to move in and tear the house down.”

McKinley hopes the play allows audiences to self-reflect on their own thoughts regarding racism, but at the same time laugh about it.

“It’s very funny, and it’s very revealing about how hard it is for us in America to really deal with all of our insecurities about race, our resentments and our goals of what we wish America to be,” McKinley said.

This play ties in with another famous play called “Raising in the Sun,” featuring some of the same characters, McKinley said. To go along with “Clybourne Park,” Fresno State’s Cineculture will be showing “Raising in the Sun” before the premiere of the play in December.

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