Life after assault: ‘Tar Beach’ tells a victim’s story

Kindle Cowger during dress rehearsal for Tar Beach (Elizabeth Payne/Theatre Arts Department)

 The Fresno State University Theatre had its opening night of the play “Tar Beach” on Oct. 28.  This play is a stark production that relies more on character development and its language than its dramatic visuals.

    The play is directed “in the round.” This means the actors are surrounded by the audience.

   “I chose to direct this production in the round so the audience felt as if they were looking onto a rooftop,” Director J. Daniel Herring said. “I wanted the intimacy this type of theatre space creates and the feeling of being a voyeur it creates for an audience.”

    Herring is currently in his 10th year at Fresno State and recently directed “Blue Willow,” “Cabaret,” “Our Town” and “The Elephant Man” for University Theatre.

       Lia Christine Dewey, a second year theatre arts-acting major, plays Mary Frances in the production.

“This is actually my first experience doing theatre in the round. It’s definitely a trip. For me it’s like everything is so much closer to the surface. The audience’s reactions are literally right at your fingertips,” Dewey said. “As an actor, I think I enjoy this type of stage more than a proscenium arch stage because I feel like I have more of a connection with the audience. I feel it’s easier to include the audience in your story because you’re not separated by a huge apron.

   “Tar Beach” explores several topics including society’s response to sexual assault.

   “I think this play adds to the conversation of sexual assault as it relates to how families and friends respond to the handling of reporting an assault,” Herring said. “The issues surrounding privacy, scrutiny and fear are very real to the victims and their families.”

    Herring said in a press release from Fresno State, “When I first read ‘Tar Beach,’ I was reminded that there are those times in our lives that we are on a collision course with the self, with family and with the entire world. These times are so intense that the only thing we have to hold on to is hope, and it is this sense of hope that drew me toward staging this sharply written script.”

    The production uses a small number of props to represent a large number of objects. This helps emphasize the actors and their performances. It also makes scene changes quick and simple.

    The lighting in the play is used to represent emotion. When feelings are building, the lighting changes with it. When the climax arrives, the lights go out to press upon you the seriousness of it.

“There are so many things I enjoy about this production: the story, the dialects, my costumes– god, I love my costumes. What sticks out to me most, however, is my cast,” Dewey said.

Dewey said the production has had a great impact on her and the rest of the cast.

“We’re all theatre majors and we’ve all known each other for a bit, but this show has brought us together, made us a family,” Dewey said. “It connected us, and for that I am incredibly thankful to our playwright, Tammy Ryan and our director, J Daniel Herring.”

   “Tar Beach” is now showing in the Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre at Fresno State in the Speech Arts Building at 7:30 p.m. until Nov. 5.

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