Imagine living in a place where words are limited. People can say or write only certain words. Pens can be used only at school and must be returned to the teacher at the end of the day.
At the Kennedy Center, a play called “Where Words Once Were” depicts such a place. The City wants to protect its citizens from words that might provoke anger or lead to questions and fighting. Citizens are allowed to use only 1,000 carefully selected words, and those using others are punished and silenced. These “silenced ones” can never speak again, nor can other people speak to them.
One thousand words may seem like a lot. But try an experiment. See if you and your friends can keep track of the words you use in one day. When you compare lists, you will probably find that each one includes more than 1,000 different words.
The play begins with 11-year-old Orhan and his friends obeying the law. Then Orhan meets a girl who has been silenced. They break the City’s rule and talk to each other. She teaches Orhan words he has never heard, and they play word games. He’s amazed at these new words, which are rich with sound and meaning. He begins to realize how much more he could learn and express if he knew more words.
“This is a story about the importance of words, the significance of silence,” said Chris Lane, the actor who plays Orhan. The play “connects with young people and adults,” he added, in an interview after a recent performance.
Lane grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. At 23, he is 12 years older than the character he portrays. To play Orhan, “I tried to capture the bounce, freedom and [sense of] play we experience at a younger age,” he said.
At Orhan’s age, “I was falling in love with words,” said Finegan Kruckemeyer, the author of the play. “I began putting pen to paper and writing clumsy stories and poems,” he said.
As a child, Kruckemeyer had moved with his family from rural Ireland to Adelaide, a busy city in Australia. His parents started taking him and his siblings to plays, and soon the kids were performing in youth theater.
“The play made me think about the words I use,” said Anna Quackenbush, 11, who saw a performance with her family last week.
Anna participates in Girls on the Run at Waples Mill Elementary School, in Oakton, Virginia. At practice, “we talk about the power of words,” she said. “What we say and how we treat people is very important.”
Her sister, Charlotte, 7, said that she “really liked how they did the rain.”
The play’s lighting designer, Mary Keegan, created patterns of moving light to depict the rain that often falls in the shadowy City. This helps to create a feeling of quiet bleakness, which seems to fit a place where language is censored, or heavily controlled.
For Lane, the most thrilling moment in the play occurs when “the audience can watch the events of four days happen in four minutes.” He said he hopes that everyone going to the play will pay special attention to this sequence, or “montage.”
“Every time I live this moment onstage, I am truly in awe,” he said.
What: “Where Words Once Were.” Pick up a free performance guide with word games and things to watch and listen for.
Where: Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington.
When: Through November 27. Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Check website for other showtimes.
How much: $20.
How old: Age 9 and older.
For more information: A parent can visit kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/KRTBA or call 202-467-4600.