Thursday, March 10, 2011
Leading a Lively Post-Show Discussion
By Teresa Rende, Education and Community Engagement Assistant
I’ve led and attended a number of post-show discussions in my life, but none have been as intriguing as those for Mary. While I always appreciate the questions and comments our audience has for our artists and staff at post-show discussions, Mary has created a dialogue among audience members like none I've ever seen before. Folks raised their hand to share a thought or question a choice made in the play, and suddenly their fellow audience members would raise a hand—not to ask the next question, but to respond to the one previously offered, which was fantastic for me, because as a moderator my job is to facilitate an interesting and important conversation among engaged audience members.
Mary, however, can be jarring in a way that discussion does not necessarily resolve. Last week, I moderated a discussion in which three audience members had an issue with the ending that led to a debate that was simultaneously intellectual, social and emotional. The argument was that the character Mary may be misinterpreted by some viewers as speaking for all black, Christian women, simply because she is a black woman on a stage. As a room, we agreed that everyone is entitled to their own opinion even if we don’t like it (including the character Mary) and that Mary didn’t serve as a symbol for all black, Christian women. But in a climate where minorities in the media are constantly viewed as representing their people, the question arose, “Is showcasing such a character a risk?” The people who stayed to discuss knew Mary was simply one character; but might someone walk out of the theater with an altered view of the black church, black women, Christians or theology majors? The discussion grew heated as people questioned what it meant simply to have Mary on the stage.
Playwright Thomas Bradshaw mentioned during another post-show discussion earlier in the run that we don’t live life in ideals and singularities. An audience member at that post-show felt that putting all of the various “big issues” Mary touches upon in one play trivialized them. Thomas explained that in the real world, we don’t have the option of tackling one issue at a time. One play about gay rights and one play about racism in the post-civil-rights-era might be easier to digest, but the idea that, “today I am a female, tomorrow I am a lesbian, and Wednesday I am black,” isn’t an option. We live our labels, whatever they may be, simultaneously. And Mary, as a post-slavery-era slave, also wore her hat as an anti-gay activist and a devout Christian scholar.
I led the final post show for Mary last Friday, and an audience member asked me to list one thing I’d take away from the experience of having Mary on stage and moderating discussions. I told her that Mary has helped me appreciate art for what it is. Art is frequently loaded with an agenda, and while Mary brings up a number of important social topics, it doesn’t force a perspective of “right” or “wrong.” Instead, it questions our biases and forces us to face the fact that good people sometimes have opinions that we simply don’t agree with. “Dissent is not necessarily malicious,” as one very astute audience member put it. To understand Mary, I had to step away from the politics inherent in controversial topics, and instead let the story wash over me for 90 minutes. It has been such a gift to appreciate a work of art in this way, and share these amazing discussions with our audiences.