Engaged Theatre program, although this was my first time viewing the residency at Monroe. The screening process was much the same as previous times in different facilities, with the reception area almost identical to the others across the state. What was different hit me as soon as we entered the cafeteria in which the performance would take place.
The walls were covered in murals and paintings, beautifully done - one of Seattle with the Fremont troll hunching under the Space Needle; animals in lush and fantastical environments; Einstein's face emerging from wisps of smoke; women turning into flowers... And up front, a series of five or six large paintings served as the backdrop to the performance. A bus, a zoo, the Grim Reaper, starts, the open road, and even a doorway with the familiar letters of "FREEHOLD" posted over it blended together.
The central metaphor of the men's piece was a bus, and the men took us on their journey through the country and through their pasts. Interspersed with playful arguments of who should drive, who knew where they were going, were they going anywhere, anyway?, the men switched positions in the seats set up to evoke a bus, traded the cardboard 'steering wheel' back and forth, and lurched forward or back as the 'bus' rattled on its way. Every man's honesty - and sense of humor - was deeply moving. Some segments revealed part of their personal experiences leading to incarceration or their struggles in and out of prison; all of them revealed the men's growing love of language, poetry, music, and collaboration. One man spoke candidly about his son's recent suicide and his guilt over the separation between him and his family that incarceration necessitated. Another proudly identified as a "mama's boy" and romantic, bursting into a vivid spurt of a love song. Music wove in and out of the entire performance, from ensemble to solos to beat-boxing to beating on the chairs.
The men's honesty did not end with the performance. In the talkback afterwards, they spoke freely of their participation in the residency, working through the issues of their pasts, and even their stagefright leading up to the performance. One newly clean-shaven performer sheepishly admitted that his nervousness led him to shave off his goatee entirely after failing to trim it evenly at least five times. Others 'blamed' each other for initially dragging them to the first residency meeting with Carter Rodriquez and Daemond Arrindell and their initial embarrassment for participating. The sheer generosity of their spirits, both during the performance and after, was incredible to see, and rivaled only the talent they demonstrated in the performance itself.
Yes, it's a long drive out to Monroe. Yes, the clearance process has to start a month before the performance. But this is an experience of theatre in its most essential form - people working together to tell stories - that you do not want to miss.