Afterwords Afterthoughts: Against Expectations

written by Juli Del Prete, Literary and Public Programs Assistant

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs (Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago) as they discuss family and expectations at Wednesday Night Out.

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs (Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago) as they discuss family and expectations at Wednesday Night Out.

What happens when familial desires clash with societal expectations?

Our Wednesday Night Out event last night saw two guest panelists join our literary manager, Isaac Gomez. They were Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs of the Center on Halsted’s Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago support group, and in the thirty-plus minutes that they shared the Samsara stage, they expressed dreams and anxieties not unfamiliar to the characters in the play itself.

Unlike Craig and Katie, the American child-seeking couple at the center of Samsara, neither Jim nor Scott used a surrogate to build their families. Rather, both of them have children from previous marriages – to women. When they were asked about the “trials and triumphs of same-sex parenting,” they shared their stories candidly – of divorce, of coming out as gay, of building lives with their children and new partners, of the tension they often experienced between the personal and the political.

Then a patron asked, “How could you do that to [your wives]?”

There was a pause as the panelists considered how to respond. Then Scott described the role that traditional expectations had played as he struggled with his own identity. “There was an assumption, growing up, that I would marry a woman and raise a family with her,” he said. “But life got in the way.” Scott went on to relate his own journey to Craig and Katie’s. Their expectation? A baby of their own. Their reality? Having to pack up their “biological material” and send it to India – then wait nine months to meet their very non-American surrogate. Life got in the way for them, too.

“Sometimes I feel that my kids have been punished,” Jim said at one point throughout the discussion, “but I also feel that we’re a wonderful family.”

If there was a point driven home last night, it was that there’s no right or wrong way to build a family. The play and panelists echoed a universal parental desire: to make sure their children feel whole and loved. Craig has several awkward (and hilariously political incorrect) encounters with his Indian surrogate, Suraiya. But in one particularly sweet moment, he takes a picture of Suraiya in front of an Indian mosque, telling her, “We won’t let [our son] forget where he comes from.”

Scott closed out the panel by saying, “This is modern family. Family isn’t defined by a man and a woman. Things can be different and still be good.” It’s hard to disagree. After all – some traditions are made to be broken.

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Samsara runs through March 8th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

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Afterwords Afterthoughts: Let the Dates Fall

written by Lucas Baisch, Literary and Public Programs Intern

“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, ‘Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.’ But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.” – “Surat Maryam” from The Holy Qu’ran, 19:23-24

Tahera Ahmad recites versus from the Quran that feature Mary in the panel discussion Mary in Islam

Tahera Ahmad (Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University) recites verses from the Qu’ran that feature Mary in the panel discussion Mary in Islam

Wednesday evening, Victory Gardens hosted a special Afterwords discussion titled “Mary in Islam,” gathering a panel of experts to reflect on the representation of Mary in Islamic tradition. These panelists included, Tahera Ahmad, Muslim scholar and Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University, K. Rizwan Kadir, senior financial consultant and speaker on behalf of geo-political and interfaith topics, and Rohina Malik, playwright and performer.

It is no secret that after events such as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and 9/11 that a global war on terror has antagonized practitioners of Islam in America.  As a non-practitioner of any specific faith, I am always intrigued by the history of and happenings within various spiritual cultures, but going into this panel discussion I felt wary about having very little knowledge of Islamic tradition. For instance, I did not know that Mary is mentioned more times in the Qu’ran than in the Bible, or that Muslims believe in the prophets, or that Muslims believe Mary was immaculate, a perfect woman, that there was a virginal pregnancy. What I did know was that the audience’s perceived themes of loneliness, anger, regret, and sorrow living within the text of Colm Toibin’s play call into question the revered image of Mary in both realms of Christianity and Islam.

The above excerpt from the Qu’ran was brought up twice during conversation. Once, when Tahera beautifully sung the 19th sura, or chapter, of the religious text, and a second time when Rohina reflected on the agency of Mary in Islamic culture. As the story goes, God told Mary to shake the trunk of a palm tree (a very difficult task, especially when in labor) and reap from it fallen dates. In all her physical pain she mustered the strength to release the sweet fruit from the fronds, a similar power that charges the Mary seen in Testament.

Rohina articulated to the audience that, “many Muslim women feel a connection to Mary. We see her in our iconography.” The playwright aptly continued, “Until it comes to a nun or Mary, the veil is made controversial.” Considering the anecdote of the dates and the empowerment that Muslim women feel by Mary, I found myself trying to appreciate this interpretation while simultaneously checking myself for any kind of othering of the icon or culture.

The thing is, I have a way of managing my public appearance that others may not in order to feel some semblance of security walking down the street. Although I am of Latino heritage, my skin is pale and I went to college – I can spew academic verbiage in order to reinforce that I am educated. Although I identify as queer, I can lower the register of my voice, I can curl my painted fingernails while on public transit in order to avoid instances of homophobia. Identity comes as a performance to some, a physical marker to others. This isn’t to say I actively strive to hide portions of my identity, nor should anyone aspire to that, but it is important to note what is out of one’s individual control.

I contemplate recent events of physical violence on Michael Brown, Eric Garner, on Mutahir Rauf, the 23 year-old Loyola student shot and killed last week, and I feel a sort of guilt for being able to activate and deactivate facets of my personal identity depending upon my environment. People do not choose the societal interpretations of the color of their skin, or the dress they may wear.

While Tahera recited the sura, I was astonished by two patrons in the back of the audience loudly whispering and actually calling out during the sacred chants, “Do we even know what she’s doing?”  While these were only two of a largely invested group of listeners, I felt genuinely surprised that this was how some people listen. I try to go to the theatre for my beliefs to be challenged. It isn’t very often that this actually happens. Even though I may have felt ignorant Wednesday night, it is important that I have opportunities such as this panel to be educated.

“America is an on-going social experiment,” Kadir reminds me; a country built upon the intercultural exchange of beliefs. Though Islam and Christianity have many common threads between them, Kadir paints the picture of the United States as an amorphous blob still trying to figure out what it is. Today, I think about gathering dates from palm frond; I try to contemplate the ways in which art, religion, and politics give or take the ability to shake tree trunk. As I aid Victory Gardens in moving forward with public programming for upcoming shows Samsara and The Who and The What, I am grateful for last night’s panel challenging my ideas of what life outside my peripheral truly looks like.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Depicting the Divine

written by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

Dennis Zacek and Linda Reiter talk about their process in bringing to life The Testament of Mary

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Linda Reiter (Mary) and Dennis Zacek (Artistic Director Emeritus) as they talk about their process in bringing The Testament of Mary to life.

Throughout the last couple of weeks, our Public Programs events for The Testament of Mary have asked our patrons to investigate the image of Mary and how she alters based on who we are as people. To some, she is a Jewish mother grieving the loss of her son. To others, she is a reverential biblical icon – untouched by human hands.

Responses have varied and conversations have been heated, but one thing remains consistent: there are variations of ‘the truth’, and this play allows our patrons to investigate these differences as they experience this image of Mary as she is written by Colm Toibin, directed by Dennis Zacek and performed by Linda Reiter.  

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis and Linda following a performance of The Testament of Mary as part of our Public Programs event ‘Depicting the Divine’. In talking through their process of crafting the iconic biblical images portrayed on the stage, Dennis mentioned that Colm left much room for interpretation. “There is one stage direction in the piece,” Dennis said. “‘Mary produces a knife.’ The rest was left for us to figure out.”

I had the pleasure to witness Dennis and Linda’s collaboration in the weeks leading up to opening night. A unique pairing, the two bounced ideas off one another, and were unafraid to explore the varying ways to tackle the rich and profound text Colm left in his wake. “I wanted to create a ceremony, a sacred place, an altar,” Dennis commented. “To make it as pure as I possibly could.”

Their own experiences also influenced their take on Mary. For Linda, a born and raised Methodist, it was the image of Mary as a woman and mother that stuck out to her the most.  “I wonder why no one thought of this before now?” Linda asked. “We think of Mary just being a mother who did what she had to do but what I love about this piece is that she’s intelligent and witty. She’s human.”

For Dennis, born, raised and educated through a Catholic upbringing, it was the shift in perspective that drew him to the work. Brought up with the iconic image of Mary, he was excited by this play asking us to look at Mary through a very different light. “She’s funny,” he added. “And one of the ways people survive hardship is through humor.”

It is fairly obvious that while most theater companies throughout the city are in the midst of their Christmas Carol’s and holiday shows, Victory Gardens is presenting a Midwest premiere of a solo-performance piece that largely pulls from events observed throughout the Easter season. One patron asked Dennis, “We are in the midst of the Nativity, the birth of Christ. Why present this play at a time when Christians are celebrating his birth?”

And in his very coy manner, Dennis curled a smile, creased his mustache and said, “Well… perhaps this is a different kind of Christmas show.”

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: an unspeakable loss

written by Carina Abbaticchio, Literary and Public Programs intern

A panel of bereaved parents share their testimonies following a performance of The Testament of Mary

A panel of bereaved parents share their testimonies following a performance of The Testament of Mary

Before we officially opened this The Testament of Mary this past Friday, all of our post-show discussion audiences have pointed out the fact that Mary is a mother who has lost her son. When asked what this piece is about, audience members have chimed in with:

“A mother who has lost her son”

“Grief”

“A mother’s pain”

“A grieving mother”

This past Saturday we dedicated our entire post-show discussion to this conversation. The idea that transcends the story of Mary and Jesus and of The Testament of Mary: the relationship between a parent and child. While Mary bears witness to her son’s crucifixion, parents all over Chicago bear witness to their children’s suffering whether it be through gun violence, cancer, suicide, or other causes.

An Unspeakbale Loss included panelists from Moms of Murdered Sons (MOMS), Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS), and The Compassionate Friend (TCF).

One of the many ideas that kept coming up in this discussion was how our society addresses loss of children and our panel quickly became a call to action. Alyssa Garcia of TCF said that, as an activist, The Testament of Mary is an important step in changing the way we view grief as a society. Through this discussion, our six panelists were able to discuss the grieving process and how unique it is to each parent. They challenged how society deals with bereaved parents and shared their own testimonies as examples.

Memory was an important component of this process, along with the reclaiming of their child. In The Testament of Mary, Mary attempts to reclaim Jesus as her son, rather than the symbol his followers have made him out to be. Jack Starkey of LOSS said, “When you lose your child… You’ve lost your future. You have to redefine yourself”. In looking at the Mary we see in the play, we can see this aspect of grief; a mother who is expected to be in accordance with our traditions, trying to reclaim herself and her son.

Theatre provides an intimate, shared experience but often we regard it as art, and leave the space talking about the show for a few moments before returning to our lives. Special afterwards, such as An Unspeakable Loss allow us to engage with the work in a more personal way and spark difficult dialogues which otherwise, have little or no room in our culture. Just as Colm Tóibín has allowed Mary to share her testimony, The Testament of Mary allows room for the audience to share their own.

 

Other quotes from our panel of parents at An Unspeakable Loss:

“After your child’s death, you’re left alone in their bedroom with clothes still hanging in the closet”

“There are 30 seconds of relief when [your child’s] pain is over. But it only lasts 30 seconds.”

“Even though everyone is touched by grief, its deafening…society and loved ones wont always see that”

“They ask: ‘did he deal drugs? Was he in a gang?’ Are those the criteria that make it okay to be murdered?”

“Mary was trembling. It’s something very physiological that happens when your child is taken away”

“I saw this play and if I can take away anything, it’s that you’ve got to hold onto hope.”

For more, please follow @VictoryGardens on Twitter, or search the hashtags #Testify #TestamentofMary and #PublicPrograms

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: a language of faith

written by Lucas Baisch, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Lucas Baisch performs "AN EXCERISE IN GROWING OLDER: SEVEN INSTALLMENTS" at Wednesday Night Out

Lucas Baisch performs “AN EXERCISE IN GROWING OLDER;SEVEN INSTALLMENTS” at Wednesday Night Out

Last night, I had an acutely different experience partaking in our public program Wednesday Night Out: From Madonna to Madonna, this time participating not only as intern but also as a performer and panelist.

Our pre-show performance consisted of several curated acts presenting artists whose work explored interactions, intersections, conversations between religious iconography and pop culture. I had the opportunity to present one of my solo performance pieces, “an exercise in growing older; seven installments”. My story shares the recent discovery of long kept familial secrets and their parallel to my Roman Catholic upbringing and belief in omens. The pre-show performances were well-received and acted as a relevant starter course for the night’s preview of The Testament of Mary.

After the night’s riveting performance, a panel was gathered consisting of Rev. Chris Robinson (Roman Catholic Priest and Professor at DePaul University), Andrew Fortman (Cultural Programs Manager at Chicago’s Center on Halsted), Ester Alegria (writer, performance artist, and human rights activist), and myself. Our conversation was thoughtfully navigated by Isaac, exploring ideas of why artists are so inclined to include religious iconography, allusion, and language in their work.

On a personal level, the conversation made me think critically about why I choose to utilize such pious imagery and terminology in a vast amount of my work. While my content surfaces on a subconscious level, I find it peculiar that a language of faith is inscribed in my upbringing. In listening to Colm Toibin’s own analysis of his writing, I find myself repeatedly relating to the way in which he uses his personal biography to filter into fictional representations of the world. As an artist, one is constantly searching for ways to abstract their life’s experiences into work that provokes a more universal dialogue. Perhaps this is why pop culture uses religion as an instrument; perhaps deconstructing what we revere permits questions that cannot be asked otherwise.

While I have both observed and led post-show discussions at Victory Gardens, it was an eye-opening experience to shift into a role in which my voice was solicited for conversation. If anything, I feel as though it brings me closer to the play. I left the the theatre feeling less passive as a spectator and more engaged as a participant, trying to identify the parallels my voice shares with the content produced by another artist. I can only hope these thoughts build as I continue to watch the play grow over the course of its run.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: more questions than answers

written by Carina Abbaticchio, Literary and Public Programs Intern

David Chack and Isaac Gomez moderate a discussion at The Testament of Mary

David Chack and Isaac Gomez moderate a discussion at The Testament of Mary

“They appear more often now…” begins Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. Who are they? We never see them onstage, nor does Mary define them by name or occupation, but they are a constant presence in the world of this play. With the help of David Chack (Artistic Director of ShPIeL-Performing Identity and Professor in Jewish and Holocaust Theatre at DePaul University), the audience engaged in a lively conversation about who these men might be in a special Afterwords discussion on the intersection between Christianity and Judaism.

One audience member pointed out Mary’s anger towards these men and the pressure she faces from them to continue to relive the painful memories of her son’s death. Their questioning and their presence in her life provide the motor for the play. They antagonize her into silence, into a world where she no longer wishes to have dreams, out of fear that those dreams may be misconstrued.

So who are these men? Are they new Christians? Followers of Jesus? Those who would go on to write the Gospel? These were all ideas that the audience posed, although they agreed that Colm Tóibín purposely leaves their identities open to interpretation.

But the identity of these men is just one of many questions  left unanswered. One of the largest questions surrounds the necessity of Jesus’s suffering. When Mary is told by these men that Jesus had to suffer so the world could be saved, she responds, “Saved? Who has been saved? Is that what this was for?” David pointed out the distinct Jewishness of Mary’s response – her interrogation of what they were telling her – her unwillingness to swallow their answers easily.

As we continue to explore the piece with different audiences and panelists through our Public Programs, it will be exciting to see this conversation continue. 

 

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: The Testament of Mary

written by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

This past weekend, Victory Gardens Theater welcomed its first audiences to witness the Midwest premiere of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. This solo-performance work, performed by revered Chicago-based actress Linda Reiter, garnered post-show discussions intersecting art, religion and history in response to this creative re-imagining of Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the play, Mary recounts the life and times of her son, Jesus, and the days that followed his crucifixion. From his most memorable miracles to the final hours of his life, The Testament of Mary takes the divine image of Mary presented in biblical and historical narratives, and deconstructs her to a more humanistic and down-to-earth portrayal of a mother reconciling with the greatest loss a parent can endure – the loss of a child.

Alongside the author’s personal anecdotes and acute descriptions of his own work, Toibin articulates a sense of wisdom when conveying who he is as an artist and human being. In an interview with NPR, Colm expressed that as an Irish writer, he comes from a place of silence. When his father died, a tense quiet fell over his family and no one spoke his name again. This parallels the difficulty Mary has in naming her own son when speaking of him through the course of the play. And it is this silent tension that has been rampant over audiences during preview performances of The Testament of Mary. Throughout the tense 75-minute narrative, not one person moved a muscle. All eyes were on Mary, and several of them shed tears throughout the course of the play.

In critiquing the intersection of faith and art, many patrons were quick to acknowledge a clear difference between the two, while others more immediately responded by sharing their faith and beliefs in this open exchange. This cross-faith, cross-generational, and cross-gender exchange allowed for a comprehensive dialogue to spark about Mary and the ways she lives in our lives even now, hundreds of years later. Audiences were even quick to challenge Colm’s intention of the piece:

Someone shared, “Mary attempts to dispel the stories written by men about her and her son. Yet as a male playwright, Colm is doing the exact same thing by writing this character in this way. So at the end of the day, it all comes down to these worlds being mastered and manipulated by men.”

In response to this, another said:

“Though that might be true, he knows how to write about women. I identified with every word that was spoken on that stage.”

Now, without giving too much of the play away, several patrons had very visceral responses to the final moment of the piece, where Mary questions whether or not her son’s crucifixion was worth the sacrifice.

One shouted, “As a strong Catholic woman, my faith tells me that His death was worth everything. But as a mother, and had it been my son on the cross? I don’t know how I would feel.”

Following Sunday’s heated discussion, a woman waited patiently to speak with me privately. We sat at the foot of the stage, and she told me the most tender story of how she lost a child shortly after childbirth. One of the most difficult events in her life, she shared with me the story of her daughter’s death, and how she chose to donate her organs. And in this exchange, in her daughter’s organs living in other human beings, she was able to find peace. For this mother, she said that sacrifice was worth it.

Although several patrons were strong to their convictions, others embraced having their faith challenged. In their collective doubt, they were able to identify with one another. In their collective silences, these tense and long silences Colm writes from, they were able to understand one another and live in that critical space as a collective.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the show, please click here.

We Have Not Lived It

by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

Following our Public Program panel discussion on writing and exile,  Matilde (a Guatemalan torture survivor, activist, and a new friend of mine) left a gift from her homeland Guatemala with a note that read:

“Thank you for being a voice for survivors of Torture.”

That’s a big word, isn’t it? Torture.

It rings loudly in television, films, and literature. And in stories, it is sometimes sensational and seemingly permissible.

Every time I hear it, something stirs within me, and the incomprehensible rage, sadness, and confusion can never be put into enough words. In conjunction with Victory Gardens’ production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, it’s this very word – weighted in history, violence, and oppression – that stirs even larger questions and conversations within our patrons during our Afterwords (post-show) discussions and Public Programs events:

How can we even begin to comprehend the magnitude of torture? Is there a point where torture survivors might be able to forgive and let go? What is true justice for a torture survivor, and will they ever be whole again?

The only answer I’m ever able to give during these difficult yet necessary conversations is –

We can’t. We don’t know. And we’re not sure… because we have not lived it.

In crafting Victory Gardens’ most comprehensive public programming to date, I immersed myself in Chicago’s anti-torture movement because I wanted an opportunity to take the work that is already being done out in the community, and bring it to Victory Gardens for Death and the Maiden. I attended rallies and marches, vigils and film screenings, and met the most inspiring individuals along the way – all with a story to tell, and all with a passionate mission to end torture.

We wanted to create an opportunity for our audiences to share in this advocacy and activism, and to have an opportunity to bear witness to the real testimonies of torture survivors walking and living in this city every day. We wanted to find entry points for different communities and groups, who might not inherently identify with those experiences. We wanted to find a way for us to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture, and use Death and the Maiden as a springboard toward solution building for an international concern that can sometimes feels insoluble.

If you were to bump into Matilde or any other torture survivor on the street, you wouldn’t know the weight of the past they carry on their shoulders from those experiences just by looking at them. It isn’t until you hear their testimonies – their bold, uncensored, unapologetic testimonies – that you might start to gain some insight to the slightest idea of the effects of torture on our neighbors, friends, and strangers on the street.

I, much like most of our audiences for Death and the Maiden, will never know what it is like to be a torture survivor. But with the help of our public programming, and with new friends like Matilde, Mario, Darrell, and many others, we can be one step closer to being better advocates, better allies, and better artists.

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