Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival is Timely and Scary

Critic Rick Pender took a weekend trip to Louisville to catch Actor Theater's annual 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays

click to enlarge Paul Nicholas, Arash Mokhtar and Hassan Nazari-Robati in "The Corpse Washer"
Paul Nicholas, Arash Mokhtar and Hassan Nazari-Robati in "The Corpse Washer"

The 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays just concluded on Sunday at Actors Theatre of Louisville, which staged five productions. The company was without a full-time artistic director in 2018-2019, which surely affected this year’s festival. Nevertheless, true to past festivals, topics were squarely in the moment: conflict in the Middle East, campus rape and perceptions of race. As if those stories didn’t induce enough fear in theatergoers, an eerie ghost story completed the set. 

The Corpse Washer by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace adapted Sinan Antoon’s best-selling novel about Jawad (passionately portrayed by Arash Mokhtar), a young man in Iraq from 1982 to 2010. His life in Baghdad is impacted by the unending strife: the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the American occupation. But even more, he struggles with his father’s insistence that he carry on their family’s generational heritage of running a “wash house,” where bodies of the deceased are cleansed for burial. Jawad yearns to be an artist, but in his world, death is constantly front and center.

Jawad’s story moves back and forth in time: We see him as an eager boy, learning the practice of washing and arguing with his father about attending art school while losing people he loves because of the interminable combat. Actors of Middle Eastern descent played the living and the dead. While rooted in everyday civilian life in Baghdad, the play portrayed recognizable underlying humanity. It was a deeply moving theatrical work.

Dave Harris’ Everybody Black gave a wildly satirical look at black history, beginning with a cheerfully obvious greeting, “Hi. I’m black,” from a self-proclaimed black historian (J. Cameron Barnett), who manically described his recruitment by an enticing paycheck to write a definitive version of “The Black Experience™.” Unfortunately, he confessed, he doesn’t know other black people, so his rendering is crazily askew, with no compunction about presenting outrageous stereotypes. He has crafted scenes of off-kilter, often offensive caricatures. Eventually the actors chastised him and insisted on adherence to the truth. But the second act opened with a pair of kitchen workers who eventually became recognizable as the latter-day Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Everything remained distorted. The show ended with an actor playing Harris, the actual playwright, explaining, “We’ll have to be OK with the path that got us here,” backed by a rapidly flowing stream of genuine family photos from generations of African-Americans. Writing about any aspect of history, this play suggests, is at least as much about the writer as the story. This provocative play offended some and made others think, which was surely part of Harris’ intention. 

click to enlarge The cast of "Everybody Black" - Johnthan Roberts
Johnthan Roberts
The cast of "Everybody Black"

How to Defend Yourself by Lily Padilla is the story of a self-defense class for several female college students in reaction to the violent assault of a sorority sister. My takeaway: It’s seriously confusing to be a young adult in today’s world when sex happens casually (and is discussed as frankly as it is in this script), but the point when behavior becomes inappropriate is hazy and fraught with tough decisions. Whether self-defense is truly possible is never fully answered, but doubt is certainly raised. Young men (there are two male characters) are just as vulnerable. Rape culture is a tough topic.

Lucas Hnath had his fourth festival production, The Thin Place. He’s presently one of America’s most-produced playwrights, thanks in large part to his exposure at past Humana festivals. (A Doll’s House, Part 2, his Tony-nominated sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s classic was recently staged at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.) The “thin place” is a translucent, apparently permeable, barrier between our world and somewhere the dead can still be heard. This enigmatic ghost story was narrated by a deadpan woman (Emily Cass McDonnell) and a colorful, rather zany psychic (Robin Bartlett). Staged in Actors’ intimate Victor Jory Theatre, it gave a lot of people the creeps.

click to enlarge The cast of "The Thin Place" - Johnthan Roberts
Johnthan Roberts
The cast of "The Thin Place"

We’ve Come to Believe by Kara Lee Corthron, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos was performed by Actors’ apprentice company in an inventively conceived and choreographed work about how vulnerable people can be to collective delusion — in the form of religious cults, social media and paranoia about witch hunts. It was the festival’s most entertaining and varied production. 

Actors Theatre recently announced the appointment of a new artistic director, Robert Barry Fleming, coming from the Cleveland Playhouse. I’m eager to see how he shapes next spring’s 44th festival.

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