The Performing Arts Department brings theatre to the screen with Homecoming Voices

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Catherine Herlihy, left, and Sarah Beshke in “Solastalgia,” written by Marisa Wegrzyn. (Photo courtesy of the Performing Arts Department)

With live theatre not feasible amidst the ongoing pandemic, the Homecoming Voices series finds Washington University’s Performing Arts Department taking another approach: a series of recorded plays available on demand to the public from April through May. All four of the plays were written by Wash. U. alumni, all asked to write a 15-25 minute play with casts of 2-4 actors. The first two plays, “Solastalgia” and “The Nicest White People That America Has Ever Produced,” premiered on April 9.

“Solastalgia” is written by alumna (‘03) Marisa Wegrzyn and directed by Wash. U. Drama professor Andrea Urice. Starring seniors Sarah Beshke and Catherine Herlihy as Alex and Chris, respectively, the play follows three roommates stuck in their apartment during the pandemic; tensions begin to rise as everyone loses their job, and no one is happy.

Alex and Chris have been living together since freshman year of college when they “imprinted on each other like ducklings,” as Chris puts it. A new sloppy roommate named Terry—who never appears on screen, although audiences constantly hear about him from Alex and Chris—changes their dynamic for the worse, and their living situation becomes untenable.

Herlihy is stunning as Chris, and she does a wonderful job embodying her character’s hardened, bitter personality. Chris is incredibly opinionated, and she’s not ashamed of her actions, even after throwing a bowl at Terry. On the whole, Herlihy’s unabashed portrayal of Chris was truly refreshing to watch.

Similarly, Beshke does a subtly wonderful job as Alex. Simply put, Alex is too nice. She’s afraid of confrontation, which proves to be a problem when her two roommates despise each other. Audiences can feel the anxiety ensconced in Alex’s persona, which is a testament to Beshke’s strength as an actress. Even as Alex learns to set boundaries over the course of the play, her passiveness, although endearing, remains.

Perhaps the most resonant moment in the show, and the reason for its title, was when Chris explains “There’s a word for the thing we’re feeling. Solastalgia: existential distress caused by environmental change. Homesickness in the comfort of your own home.” Normally I don’t enjoy consuming media about the pandemic or climate change, because I’m already living it, but the acknowledgement of solastalgia felt incredibly relevant in the show; there are so many surreal and horrific things happening at once in the world right now that even our most basic coping mechanisms are beginning to fail, and I appreciate being able to watch a play that understands that.

Jenise Sheppard, right, as screenwriter Black in conversation with Alex Hewlett, left, in “The Nicest White People America Has Ever Produced.” (Photo courtesy of the Performing Arts Department)

“The Nicest White People That America Has Ever Produced” was written by alumni (‘06) Chauncy Thomas and directed by St. Louis-based director Jacqueline Thomas. I’d like to admit that, going into this production, my hopes were incredibly low. I didn’t have great details about what the show was about, but the title alone was enough to turn me off; as a Black woman, nothing excites me about a show interrogating the “niceness” of white people, especially after a year where my people, and many other marginalized people, have been subject to intense violence at the hands of white people.

After watching the play, I was glad I went in with low expectations, because the show’s writing was mediocre at best. The play follows junior Jenise Sheppard and sophomore Alex Hewlett as screenwriter Black and director White, respectively. Black wants White to direct her show so that it will be more palatable to white audiences, but when she explains this to White, a terse debate ensues about the double standards for white creators compared to Black creators.

At one point, Sheppard’s character mentions that the (mainly white) people  in charge of selecting which films are nominated for Oscar awards often prefer “diet racism,” because they don’t want to come face to face with the ways in which they themselves perpetuate a culture of anti-Blackness. Black people experience the world through the lens of Blackness and white people experience the world through the lens of whiteness, so writing a script with Black audiences in mind is different than writing a script with white audiences in mind.

This sentiment is very true, and it was clear to me that “The Nicest White People That America Has Ever Produced” was written for a white audience; while the discussion between Black and White involved numerous valid points, nothing was introduced that I hadn’t already heard of or thought of before. I see how a white person may have gained new knowledge from the production and do recommend white people stream it, but for me as a Black person, the premise just felt tired and unnecessary.

As much as I disliked the show itself, Sheppard and Hewlett’s phenomenal performances were its saving grace. Whenever both actors spoke I felt the passion and strength of their convictions, and they did a great job showcasing the tensions that rise during conversations about race between people of different races. Regardless of what I felt about the script, the show was engaging because their enrapturing energy kept me interested in their performances.

The show ends with Sheppard’s character storming off-stage, and throughout the production I could clearly see Sheppard’s frustration continually building until it reached a boiling point. While I disagreed with many of the points made by Hewlett’s character, his portrayal of White’s beliefs was very convincing.

While not my cup of tea script-wise, “The Nicest White People That America Has Ever Produced” is a reminder that sometimes, what makes a production wonderful isn’t the show itself but the actors who are performing it.

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