The Hamner Theater studio in Crozet Arts presented an enlightening evening of short plays and monologues by Royal Shiree and John Lawson August 10. Six gifted actors played multiple roles to perform dramatic readings of four “pop-up” plays. “They are called ‘pop-up’ because they happen suddenly with minimal pre-prep so they are raw and immediate,” explained Hamner Artistic Director Boomie Pedersen, who organized and produced the event.
Ernest Chambers gave stage directions and narrated in his deep, booming voice before a rapt audience of about 30 attendees. Both playwrights are Hamner Theater board members, and the actors—including Mick Anderson, Chris Baumer, Abena Foreman-Trice, Linda Hayward, John Rabasa, and Tyra Robinson—have all worked with Hamner Theater in the past, such as attending their weekly Improv sessions. Wine and cheese were offered during the stimulating discussion that followed the dramatic readings.
“These are issue-driven plays,” explained Lawson during the discussion that followed the performance. “My ideal for a play is to tear the loyalties of the audience in two.” Pedersen added that “Shiree writes plays that deal with difficult topics.” The playwrights’ program notes confirmed that “This kind of theater is not written primarily to entertain or to teach, but to open a conversation about real problems that affect people. Our goal is to energize and encourage the audience to think deeply about these problems and to consider who can take action to solve them.” The program also pointed out that the plays were inspired by what Brazilian drama theorist Augusto Boal (1931-2009) called “community forum theater,” whose goal is consciousness-raising and audience engagement. Based on the lively conversation that followed the plays, these goals were achieved. The scheduling of the plays on the Unite The Right anniversary weekend during Charlottesville’s Unity Days, as well as Crozet’s Second Saturday, was not planned, but a serendipitous coincidence.
The plays, which dramatized such issues as disability, addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse, religious extremism, and slavery, were deeply moving and “very relevant to the world today,” commented one audience member. The versatile actors brought a range of characters to life for an evening of sometimes painful recognition, balancing realism with disturbing truths that hit close to home. In fact, the plays became more disturbing as the evening wore on. In “John/Wesley/Harden,” three related monologues by John Lawson, a disabled father laments the beating of his homeless, addicted son whose presence threatens Harden’s business. “Line Dry” by Royal Shiree features sisters Eddie and Lollie discussing, as they hang clothes out to dry, Eddie’s abusive husband who has recently died. As part of this affecting scene, they occasionally slip back into childhood, recalling a hand-clapping rhyme they used to sing while hiding from their abusive father. “I married my father,” Eddie confesses. “Communism” by John Lawson provides insight into an abusive marriage between a religious zealot and his trapped, intimidated housewife, while “Sable and Miss White” by Royal Shiree tackles sexual relations between slaves and slave owners—with both title characters in labor with mixed race offspring as the play opens.
Emotions ran high throughout the evening with tension, recognition, fear, and empathy enveloping the audience. “The thread that ran through each piece was a demonstration of violence in all its forms,” commented actress Abena Foreman-Trice, who played Eddie and Sable. “This was a dark theme that ran through every play, from exclusion in “John/Wesley/Harden,” to physical abuse in “Line Dry” and “Sable and Miss White,” to domination in “Communism.” Exclusion is the first violence—not including someone who is wrestling with addiction can lead to a cascade of depression and despair. Domination is emotional violence.” All agreed that the plays revealed the sameness of human experience shared across various communities. “We have a grandson causing the same kind of stress right now,” commented one audience member. Shiree summed up when she commented, “‘Sable and Miss White’ illustrates a situation that was very common and shows the social hierarchy that we’ve been engaged in for four to five hundred years. The playwrights’ goal was to bring awareness and foster empathy to bring about an evolution.”
The nonprofit Hamner Theater was founded in 2005 by theater professionals Peter Coy and Boomie Pedersen, “with the express intent of telling the stories of our community; producing professional quality performances in collaboration with the community and other area theaters; providing educational and training opportunities for any and all interested members of the community; and …working with local playwrights to develop new work.” Named in honor of Earl Hamner, Jr., the theater company opened with Peter Coy’s adaptation of Hamner’s novella, The Homecoming (which became the TV pilot for The Waltons series). They reprised The Homecoming for many Christmas seasons. Future work will include Dementia Friendly Theater, work with residents of care facilities, and a summer Shakespeare series for Crozet and environs.
Hamner Theater moved from the Rockfish Valley Community Center in 2012. They formally opened their studio at Crozet Arts in 2018, where they offer weekly drop-in Improv sessions on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. They have also offered theater classes for both adults and children. As part of their Chekhov Unbound project, they recently performed and toured Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play “Three Sisters,” adapted by playwright and University of Virginia playwriting professor Doug Grissom, performing at the Charlottesville Center, Belmont Arts Collaborative, the Colonnades, and Unity of Charlottesville.
Hamner actors are currently working on a piece about the lost community of Greenwood and the Greenwood Chemical plant explosion, as well as a Shakespeare Initiative which will include a reduced-cast touring production of “Twelfth Night.” Pederson hopes to start a Shakespeare scene study class at the Crozet Arts studio in the near future. She plans to bring Charlottesville’s Playback Theater to Crozet for Second Saturdays this fall. A play about Edgar Allan Poe is planned for October 12, with an adaptation of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”—both by Peter Coy—scheduled for December 14. Both these ‘pop-ups’ will be performed at the Hamner Studio in Crozet Arts. “We want to encourage and foster bold, sustainable community conversations. We believe that theater should be available and accessible to all because it is a necessary part of a healthy society,” Pedersen declared.
For future dates and information, visit www.hamnertheater.com; for class listings or to sign up, visit crozetarts.org.