By Katherine Stewart
University of Mississippi
The first production of the University of Mississippi Department of Theatre and Film’s spring 2023 season also marks the first time the department has hosted a visiting artist on an Achieving Equity grant from the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
“Polaroid Stories,” written by Naomi Iizuka and directed by guest director and professor Beth Reeves, opens Friday (Feb. 17) in Meek Auditorium and runs through Feb. 26. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
The play, by Japanese-born American playwright Naomi Iizuka, is loosely based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the A.D. 8 poem exploring Greek mythology that has inspired artists from Dante to Shakespeare. Abstract and nonlinear in form, the play tells the story of several disenfranchised young people living in an urban underworld.
Iizuka interviewed street youths in the creation of her play, and some of the lines come directly from them.
“As heavy as it is, it’s probably one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever worked with,” Reeves said. “It’s a journey of what we go through in terms of our emotions, mixed with a bit of Greek myth.
“But you don’t have to know Greek myth to know this story. It’s beautifully written.”
The opening-night performance will be followed by a reception at the Oxford-University Depot, and the Feb. 18 matinee will include American Sign Language interpreting and live-captioning services. Tickets are available through the UM Box Office at the Ford Center, by calling 662-915-7411 or visiting the Box Office website.
Sophomore Madison Gunderson, from Illinois, plays Persephone.
“It’s been a beautiful experience learning about these people and learning about these kids who are so similar to us but have so many different experiences,” Gunderson said.
“I’m hoping this show creates more empathy within our community and sheds light on (these youths) because so many people just don’t think about it.”
Despite the numerous differences between Gunderson and the characters in the play, she said she didn’t have a hard time identifying with them and tapping into her role.
“I’m not above anyone who’s experienced these things; we are the same,” she said. “We all experience the same emotions – different experiences, but the same feelings. … We are all just trying to do our best in this world.”
Jonathan Orange, circulation manager for the library in the UM School of Law, plays D, who Orange said “has a big personality.”
“He likes to watch people overindulge with themselves,” Orange said. “I think he also likes providing an escape for the other people in the play – and he does a good job with that! He’s almost everywhere and can be very spontaneous.”
Oxford native Orange, who has been using the Ole Miss employee education benefit to take classes within the Department of Theatre and Film since joining the law school in 2015 and has previously performed in two shows, said this character has been interesting to play because it’s so unlike him.
“I’m at the other end of the spectrum,” he said. “I’m very routine, very predictable. … I feel like being on stage and being able to act out characters allows me to release that.”
Recognizing humanity – that of ourselves and others – has been a major component of Reeves’ directing and teaching of this play.
Early in the rehearsal process, she introduced the concept of “ubuntu,” a Bantu terms meaning “humanity” that is sometimes rendered as “I am because we are.” Reeves’ full conception of this term can be found in the programs for the play.
“I hope when audiences come, their hearts are open, their minds are open, and that there’s a little shift … in the way you look at people,” Reeves said.
“You can only take away what you’re open to. So if you come with closed arms, you’re not going to take away anything; if you come with a closed mind, you won’t take away anything. But if you come with an open heart and an open mind, I guarantee you might find yourself in the script.”
The guest director position, designed for an early-career Black, Indigenous or person of color, or BIPOC, director and teacher, was conceived by Pria Wood, instructional assistant professor of theatre arts, who received an Achieving Equity grant for the position in spring 2022.
The grants are jointly administered by the Office of the Provost, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and are “intended to support innovative scholarly and creative efforts at UM that advance knowledge on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Wood said they were inspired by an article in Stage Directors and Choreographers Journal discussing the often-limited ways in which BIPOC directors are typically brought into universities.
“Representation matters,” Wood said. “I strongly believe that giving our students the experience to work with a diverse set of artists and mentors can be incredibly important to help them find their way in a discipline that, too often, still mirrors structural and systemic inequities.”
The guest director program also reflects the university’s Pathways to Equity initiative, she added.
Reeves, who uses kinship affiliations in her identification as a daughter, animal lover and country girl, teaches theater at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. She applied for the guest artist position after a friend pointed her to the opportunity, and something clicked.
“I had just finished directing an all-African American cast of ‘Steel Magnolias,'” Reeves recalled. “What I did with that was to celebrate Black aesthetics and Black beauty, which was really big in Columbus.”
Reeves’ friend saw the posting for the UM position and thought she was on to something.
“What I like particularly about this space and (‘Polaroid Stories’) is that I’m able to use my culture and my heritage to promote humanity,” Reeves said. “Inside the rehearsal space, you see that I’m a Black woman, and I like that, but you also see that through my directing and working with you, I’m bringing out humanity.”
To hear more from Reeves, listen to the latest episode of the Department of Theatre and Film’s podcast, “Stage & Screen.”