‘After the Revolution,’ ‘Agnes Under the Big Top’ are plays that deal with family matters

September 10, 2013

When Megan Anderson first read the script for Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution,” she thought her character, Emma, would be relatively blameless.

“Emma is the protagonist,” Anderson said. “So if there’s any conflict or any trouble, it’s going to come from other people. She’s not responsible for it; she’s responsible for solving it, not necessarily for where it comes from.”

Upon closer inspection, Anderson — whose Emma starts a fund in honor of her deceased Marxist grandfather, only to find out he was actually a spy for the Russians — has “learned that that is not the case . . . [Emma] has to learn how to really look at people, and where people are coming from, and why people do the things that they do, rather than take for granted that people have a certain role in her life to fill and that they’ve always filled” it.

“I just feel like so few plays get these multigenerational relationships,” director Eleanor Holdridge said. Holdridge, who directed Theater J’s production of Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” last year, was drawn to “this idea of how myths, or how families, think about themselves [that] can be inherited as well as any gene.”

“Emma just learns throughout the play that nobody is who she thought they were,” Anderson said. Her platform for the fund is that she’s fighting for the social justice her grandfather deserved but never received. Emma’s father, who knew about her grandfather’s betrayal, never told her the truth. “She feels like her dad raised her to believe one thing, and it wasn’t true at all, and [she’s] been acting as if it were true, and [she] put all her faith in [him] because [he’s her] dad.”

“I think there’s about three different times in the play where someone says, ‘Don’t tell so-and-so this.’ Or ‘I didn’t tell you because this other relative asked me not to tell you.’ It just gets so complicated,” Holdridge said.

In the case of this family, it’s a secrecy fueled by a shame that Emma doesn’t quite grasp. “These are the losers of history,” Holdridge said. “The Marxists, who found out that Stalin was a monster who killed millions of people, and what do you do with that? You still believe in Marxism or communism, but the poster children of those movements have turned out to be monsters.”

Holdridge researched the history of Marxism and communism in America. “The whole Red Scare era was so good at making the words ‘communist’ and ‘Marxist’ evil words. It’s not politically expedient, ever, to use those words. So if you are a Marxist, what does that mean today? ”

The play isn’t about that history so much as it’s informed by that history, she added. “It’s a part of who they are,” said Holdridge, and Emma’s challenge “is how she figures out what to do with the truth when she has it.”

Through Oct. 6 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW, www.washington
dcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j
, 800-494-8497.

‘Agnes Under the Big Top’

Aditi Brennan Kapil is an immigrant two times over. The playwright’s “Agnes Under the Big Top,” enjoying an area premiere at Forum Theatre, has an immigrant at its center. Agnes, a Liberian immigrant living in New York City, has terminal cancer diagnosed in the first scene of the play.

Agnes needs to find a way to tell her son, who is back in Liberia, that she will no longer be sending him money and she will not, as she’d planned, be returning home to him.

“My work, grappling with immigrants, is [asking how to tell] some nice, big, juicy complex stories about people who are more than immigrants,” Kapil said.

Kapil was born in Bulgaria to a Bulgarian mother and East Indian father. She spent “a good chunk” of her childhood there and, even after she left, would go with her cousins to her grandparents’ home during the summer. Kapil says she’s been known “to switch to Bulgarian, unconsciously,” while speaking English.

Her family immigrated to Sweden in time for Kapil to attend the equivalent of kindergarten and remained there for her teenage years. “I just was not fitting into the Swedish school at all,” she remembered. “[I was a] little brown kid. Very out of place.” Kapil’s parents switched her to the Stockholm International School, where “instead of being a cultural disconnect, there it was a financial and class disconnect,” because most of the students were children of diplomats.

Kapil, who came to the United States for college and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and children, pulled from her memories of Stockholm to write “Agnes.” Stockholm is where she learned about the culture of the subway. Both of her parents worked for the subway, the main mode of transportation in the city. Stockholm is also where she first came “face to face with the assumptions that people made” about her family, especially her parents, who spoke heavily accented Swedish.

“I’m looking at these very witty, funny people,” Kapil said. “If you get them in their own language, these very complex smart people, who were way overeducated for the jobs they had. But as humans, we see what we see and then we conclude what we conclude. And it was always difficult for me to watch how clumsy and awkward my mom could come off in certain circumstances when she was, in actuality, a very well-spoken person, just in her first language.”

Joy Jones, who plays Agnes, is a native Washingtonian. “But my parents are from eastern North Carolina and southern Georgia, so they are internal immigrants, part of the great migration of African Americans from the South to other parts of this country,” Jones said. Jones lived in New York on and off for a decade, “so I definitely relate to Agnes’s experiences . . . the experience of urban struggle and hoping, of thinking that one is going to be the exception rather than the rule.”

Immigration, and the challenges therein, have always been a subject of Kapil’s work. “You always end up writing about the things that feel most urgent within you,” she said. “Language, communication, disconnection through language and communication: That is something that is frequently on my mind.”

When audiences leave the play, Kapil said, “You’re hoping you did something to their soul, that you shifted how they look at the world a little bit. One of my favorite bits of feedback is that they went home on the subway that night and everything felt different. Everything they heard was different. The way they were listening and engaging with the world was different.”

Through Sept. 28 at the Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, www.forum-
theatre.com
, 240-644-1390.

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