Nothing says “return of the theater” like a live show reflecting on our experiences during the extended hiatus. Anacostia Playhouse’s first live production to emerge from its company-in-residence, Theater Alliance, since the start of the pandemic runs through Nov. 14. A Chorus Within Her, the women-led choreopoem, merges a myriad of theatrical forms to tell the stories of women’s experiences throughout the pandemic.
The intergenerational, intercultural cast of poet-playwrights showcase the play’s diversity. It also provided the all-women cast and all-women production team a place to breathe. “You could just bring your whole self to the room in a way that, perhaps in other environments, with other people, is more fraught,” says Jen Clements, the play’s producer.
City Paper spoke with Clements, who’s also the managing director of Theater Alliance, to learn about the process of creating A Chorus Within Her and Theater Alliance’s hope for the piece. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Washington City Paper: What’s the origin story behind A Chorus Within Her?
Jen Clements: A year ago, when we conceived it, there were three women artists that were working on a mural outside the Anacostia Playhouse, just behind the parking lot. And it was a triptych of three different women painting three different women’s portraits. We really were responsive to that idea of celebrating women and putting those voices in union with each other. So last December we reached out to a team of poets to develop a collection of material that would be the backbone of whatever this became. The backbone became the things we were grappling with, who we were before the pandemic, what the pandemic illuminated or challenged in us. And then what happens next? How do we feel? Where do we go from here, collectively, individually, everything in between?
We spent six months developing a body of written work. And we passed that on to a team of choreographers, who did a similar thing. They used the text that the poets had developed and their own research process and they developed a body of work. And then we brought in Alina Collins Maldonado, the director, and she took all that and put her own spin on it and worked with the ensemble to continue devising and developing. What we were seeking to do is find a way to authentically build community at a time when building community in person was impossible.
WCP: What were your hopes and expectations returning to live production?
JC: About a year ago, [Artistic Director] Raymond Caldwell and I first started conversations around this project. At the time, we were thinking the pandemic would be over. We were thinking this would be a ‘welcome back to live theater,’ and a way of recognizing and honoring what the past year and a half has been for people. It was about facilitating the responsible, healing, nurturing space to help grapple with that instead of pressing people back into the ‘we’re back to normal now.’ … I hope that when people see the piece, they can feel the energy of the many hands that touched and built the piece. And that they feel a part of it as well.
WCP: How did you choose the poets and what you were looking for in terms of the diversity of experiences?
JC: We did a lot of reading of local poets and talking to people in our network. I wish I could say it was as strategic as it looks, but it was really serendipitous that we ended up with one woman in her 20s, a woman in her 30s, one woman in her 40s, and one woman in her 50s. And, different racial backgrounds, different geographic backgrounds, different lived experiences … The broadest similarities they have is that they are all writers, they have all participated in creating for stage at some point. And they are all women. So finding those moments of dissonance and those moments of similarity was really exciting. Each of the poets developed their own manuscript that had its own cadences, its own structures.
WCP: How did you choose the prompts for the conversations that became the backbone of the piece?
JC: A lot of it was looking with a [women]-specific lens at what was coming to the surface in the pandemic. One of the poets, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, wrote a social media post about how her work desk was emblematic of her life at that moment: It had papers she was writing for the university where she teaches and detritus from her children … and it’s just this one image as all of the different facets of life and our identity. [A Chorus Within Her] forces us to recognize things that otherwise aren’t cast in that light.
So a lot of the writing came from conversations we were having about the things that we were all experiencing, and then taking that a step further and saying ‘OK, well, what does that make you think about? What does that force you to consider about how we were behaving before and what that looks like now?’
WCP: What parts of the COVID experience did you aim to capture?
JC: The notion of constraints, and the notion of so much happening in the same space, is something we explore. There’s moments of humor, there’s moments of grieving, there’s moments of frustrated workplace experiences happening on computers. The emotional spectrum that’s captured is very vast. So you have a hilarious monologue from Jasmine Brooks culminating in this love letter to her sweatpants. And on the other end of the spectrum, there is a piece response to a poem by Glenis Redmond that is a litany of the dead, a tribute to those who have passed in the past year and a half, examining the space left by people that we all love who are no longer with us.
WCP: What role did the performers play in devising the piece?
JC: That was really amazing to watch, because what you see in the final production is not just the words of that initial poetry team, but also responses that the ensemble have written, having read and been inspired by something that the poets created, or said, ‘You know, I want to talk back to this piece, this makes me feel something but I don’t identify with that.’
So you’ll have one actor reading the original poem, and then another responding with something that she wrote herself. And that’s really neat to see. Because it puts both the performers and the writers in a room together, even though that never actually happened. That mission of community and collaboration in pandemic times in novel ways, where you’re speaking back to someone six months ago.
WCP: What was the most challenging part of the process?
JC: Probably determining what to use, what not to use. I think Alina was a great asset in directing, because she was able to find that throughline. But there’s so much amazing work that each of the teams developed in their process that wanting to honor all of it, while also recognizing that to form a coherent story and experience, you’re going to have to trim and edit and manipulate in some ways.
To create new work in general, you’re building as you go. There is a process, but that process is much more nebulous, much more fluid, much more iterative. It forces you to really trust the people around you. But I think at a time when we’re diving back into live theater, there’s all the uncertainties around the pandemic, all the uncertainties around what the theater looks like these days.
WCP: What does bringing your whole self to the piece look like?
JC: For the ensembles specifically, the work that they were doing asked them to dig into a lot of personal truth, a lot of past experience, and have some challenging conversations. I think, because of the work and because of the people and it being a team of women, they were able to form that trust and that camaraderie. You see it in the performances and also behind the scenes—they are so supportive of each other, and they’re so quick to advocate for one another in the most beautiful ways. I might say the same thing if it weren’t just an ensemble of women, but because it is, it seems to add something to the ways in which they are there for each other.
WCP: Why this moment? What makes it so important to center women’s voices?
JC: The pandemic, like all major crises, heightens any existing disparities systemically. So, globally, you see a lot of the challenges of the pandemic falling on the shoulders of women, other marginalized genders, other marginalized people, in economics, in all of the ways.
On the other hand, you see women as amazing leaders. You see the countries that are helmed by women leaders having a much stronger pandemic response and overcoming this moment, much more so than countries led by male counterparts. It’s that disparity of looking at the things that are happening globally to women in this moment, and looking at women in power positions, and how they are able to navigate such challenge with grace and strength.
WCP: What is it that you hope audiences will most take, get, or give during A Chorus Within Her?
JC: It’s my hope that people feel seen and heard through the work. I hope they feel a sense of community with the other audiences in the room. And I hope they leave inspired by the way that people continue to uplift each other even in moments of challenge. I think that’s something that art will always continue to do and hopefully the communities that are forged through art making will continue to do as well.
Theater Alliance’s A Chorus Within Her runs daily to Nov. 14 at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. theateralliance.com. $25–$35.