Chemical Exile
Arika Thames (Teddy) in Rorschach Theatre Company’s Chemical Exile: Synthesis; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

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Until this month, Rorschach Theatre Company’s science fiction opus Chemical Exile—the brainchild of Artistic Directors Randy Baker and Jenny McConnell Frederick and associates Kylos Brannon, Shayla Roland, and Jonelle Walker—existed only in assorted writings and artifacts mailed out over the course of nine months. Subscribers were invited to stitch the narrative together while visiting sites throughout the region, each corresponding to one of the story’s seven chapters. With Chemical Exile: Synthesis, directed by Baker and co-written by Walker and Doug Robinson, audiences can now experience the saga’s end in a live, immersive performance at the Southwest Waterfront Centre. Technically, the story and the live show can be enjoyed independently of the other, but having missed out on the full experience of Rorschach’s Distance Frequencies during its 2020-2021 season, I decided to take it all in this time—and in one day, no less.

Though I have previously worked with Rorschach as a dramaturg and playwright on small, short-term projects, I had no connection to Chemical Exile other than as an audience member.

Chapter one of my site-specific theater binge took me from my home in Takoma to Mount Zion/Female Union Band Cemetery in historic Black Georgetown. There I surveyed fictional journal entries of Dr. TheodoraTeddyMorris, a scientist who returned to D.C. in 2021 and found, much to her horror, that her father’s grave is no longer where it belongs. It’s Teddy’s tale we’re following and her disorientation compounds at the next stop, the Line Hotel in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood she knew as a child but now finds completely foreign. In the following two chapters, a hallucinogenic trip through the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland and a meditation at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Teddy realizes the truth: She has somehow fallen into an alternate reality. This brings her into orbit with Everett Morris, a displaced, alternate version of her father, and Velouria King, founder of a support group for fellow “Reality Rejects.” Together, Teddy and Velouria conduct experiments on a group of Rejects at Glen Echo Park, while Everett pleads with Teddy to join his newly founded church in Old Town Alexandria, and to accept him as her true father. With time to complete my pre-Synthesis journey ticking down, I resolved to circle back to Old Town at a later date and went on instead to the final chapter at Anacostia Park’s roller skating pavilion, the backdrop for a family tussle during the wedding rehearsal dinner for Frankie, Teddy’s brother-from-another-universe.

As I chased Teddy’s paper trail across the city and into both Maryland and Virginia, I found each corresponding site well suited for grounding this sprawling, complex, and (deliberately) confounding narrative. It helped that Teddy’s frantic quest for answers mirrored my own frantic trek around town, though I missed having time to relish places like the appropriately out-of-time Glen Echo Park, with its 101-year-old carousel and early-20th century flair, or the packed roller skating pavilion. While it made a great guide for this newly official D.C. resident, Chemical Exile also made me hyper-aware of myself as a tourist—even a trespasser—in other people’s lives, real and otherwise. Teddy’s existential displacement, meanwhile, resonated with the real displacement brought on by gentrification, which has made D.C. unrecognizable to many longtime Black residents. 

An audience member explores the multiverse in Rorschach Theatre Company’s Chemical Exile: Synthesis; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

After a day of solo adventuring, I joined 40 other patrons in the lobby at Waterfront Centre, now rechristened “R2 Labs,” for a trip through Synthesis. We were greeted, in the flesh, by Teddy (Arika Thames), Velouria (Jen Rabbitt Ring), and their research assistant Kallik (Erik Harrison), who welcomed us as fellow Reality Rejects and announced that we would serve as guinea pigs for an experiment. After being administered mind-altering psychotropic “drugs” (in the form of temporary tattoos), we were instructed to investigate the vast R2 facility, which housed a dozen or so slices of artfully rendered parallel worlds: one room showed an office afflicted by a lack of gravity, one was underwater, still another appeared to be drawn by hand. Midway through, the scientists’ efforts to solicit feedback about our experiences were interrupted, first by Everett (Baakari Wilder), hiding in plain sight, and later by Teddy’s would-be mother Elizabeth (Roz Ward) and brother Frankie (Nathanael Hatchett). We spent the remainder of our time shuffling after the researchers as Teddy struggled to reconcile her cosmically weird family dynamic and her drive to find safe passage for everyone to return to their “true” reality.  

As with the preceding chapters, Synthesis cleverly immerses and implicates its audience in the story. The psychotropic drugs, for example, teased the possibility that we were not encountering breaks in the multiverse at all, but merely participating in a bad trip. However, the move from self-guided investigation to live performance shifts the onus of keeping the audience engaged and on schedule onto the performers, a responsibility that sometimes proved cumbersome. As Teddy, Thames’ enthusiasm echoed off our largely implacable group, while the stop-and-start procession scattered our numbers and occasionally obstructed the actors’ efforts to play out their scenes as if we weren’t there. An increased dose of Harrison’s wry wit or more dexterous interactions with the audience might have really brought us into the fold as fellow Rejects. Nevertheless, the show summons intense moments of pathos, especially when it centers the Rejects’ anguished dislocation. Wilder’s desperate and zealous Everett was particularly affecting, as was Ring’s Velouria, whose optimism cracks in the wake of growing obstacles. 

Ultimately, Chemical Exile’s gift is in its thoughtful, self-reflexive world-building. At its best, Synthesis fulfills that brief by asking us to, as Velouria says, “look again,” whether at the beautiful, inventive rooms designed by Nadir Bey, Sarah Beth Hall, and Grace Trudeau; the ties that bind a family, despite its existential dysfunctions; or the city that inspired it all, which earned a fittingly spectacular salute at the show’s climax. Thankfully, I got to look at Chemical Exile again the following day when I paid a belated visit to Everett’s headquarters, an evocative installation in the windows of an Old Town rowhouse. Though I saw it out of sequence, evidence of Everett’s religious yearning felt like an assurance that the quest for truth—and Rorschach’s latest magic act—lives on. 

Chemical Exile: Synthesis, created by Randy Baker, Kylos Brannon, Jenny McConnell Frederick, Doug Robinson, Shayla Roland, and Jonelle Walker, plays at R2 Labs at Waterfront Centre through July 24 and you can still buy subscriptions to Chapters 1-7. $30–$40.