The Revolutionists, opening at Strawdog Theatre in mid-November, may center on the concerns of 18th-century women during the Reign of Terror, but Lauren M. Gunderson's feminist script provided a dynamic opportunity for director Denise Yvette Serna to create an entirely intersectional Chicago production team made up of femmes, women of color and non-binary folx.
"I am a Brown queer woman, and in the course of my few years in Chicago, I am really thankful that I have been able to be in a lot of great rooms, but a lot of times, I am the only person in that space," Serna said. "I asked myself, How can we get more perspective in this space?'"
She started by investigating the casting of previous productions. "The play is about all these feminist ideals," she told Windy City Tines. "But historically, it has been cast with all white women and one woman of color." In fact, the front of the printed script features the portraits of historical figures that appear in the play, three of whom are white women: feminist playwright Olympe de Gouge, assassin Charlotte Corday and deposed Queen Marie Attoinette. The fourth figure, Marianne Angelle, a free woman from the Caribbean and a spy, is a composite figure, and often the only woman of color onstage.
The play's narrative revolves around De Gouge exploring different actions to take in response to the French Revolution. Charlotte Corday barges in demanding final words after she has killed Jean-Paul Marat. Queen Marie Antoinette visits demanding an explanation as to why she has been imprisoned, while Marianne Angelle serves as a sounding board and motivator for the upper-class writer. Gunderson writes in comedic contemporary dialogue, and even addresses the fact that her characters are in a play by having them reference what events they would prefer to see onstage.
Serna approached auditions not by focusing on the familiar, but on the personal. In addition to asking actors to read sides from the script, she requested they prepare a minute of the Declaration of the Rights of Women, written by De Gouge, who was an outspoken feminist of her time. "I wanted to see which ideas got them excited and what fire got them into that passionate delivery," she said. Passion and point of view developed the casting, rather than focusing on appearance or historical accuracy for historical accuracy's sake.
Forming an intersectional design team took more effort, however. Serna searched in the databases developed by the Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago, a volunteer organization that catalogues Latinx actors, directors and designers working in the area. She also touched base with the Latinx Theatre Commons, a convening based out of the online Howlround Theatre Commons, that shared designer spreadsheet lists with her.
In many cases, the people Serna contacted were already booked, and couldn't take on more design work. "Because so few people had opened the door before, there was a lack of people to pull from," she said. "I want to be really responsible about the stories I'm telling and the identities I'm uplifting." The lengthened search proved fruitful, as the entire production team is made up of non-binary folx, women, and women of color. "What we are making is a new version of this [play]," Serna stated.
Alex Casillas' scenic design is focused on the harshness these women endure at the height of the French Revolution. The few pieces of furniture onstageDe Gouge's writing desk, an archway entry, the chairsare functional and concrete, based in brutalist architecture. But the set's background painting is inspired by Xu Longsen's Light of Heaven, which was on display at the Art Institute this past winter and summer. The background blends in images that create a softer and more natural tone for the actors to play against. Likewise, Claire Chrzan's light design can contrast the neutral-toned costumes designed by Leah Hummel, creating a fantastical experience that allows us to remain in De Gouge's point of view from scene to scene. Meanwhile, Spencer Meeks' sound design keeps the women contained in their hidden space, with live looped sound effects reminding them they live in revolutionary times.
Having an intersectional workspace brought a lot of ease and immediate respect to the production process. "So many different viewpoints from designers and actors helped drive each other," said Kamille Dawkins, who plays Marianne Angelle. "You have this open for anything atmosphere."
"To have a barrier taken down, to have the relaxation of not having to prove yourself [to an all-white room], is really amazing," Serna explained. "These characters have their flaws and blind spots, and being able to talk about blind spots, to be able to have a dynamic conversation, is everything." She pointed out that having a wider variety of voices in the room helped develop a complex scene in which Marie Antoinette remarks that Marianne Angelle must be a slave, rather than a free woman, due to the color of her skin.
Strawdog won't be the first company to produce The Revolutionists in Chicago this year, as Organic Theater Company staged the show this past summer. Serna is not worried about the two productions appearing so soon after one another. "If we can see a dozen men play Hamlet in one year, then I think we can see a play about women twice. We should have the same liberty in doing scripts about women. We're so multifaceted and to be able to see us strong and revolutionary and also to see us be soft and fragile is really important."
"It's kind of funny, in that I feel very similar to Marianne," Dawkins said. "I don't post online or attend protests, but when I see something wrong, I will speak up then. When she sees someone losing faith, she urges them to keep going. I keep trying to do that. It's finding where you are in the revolution."
The Revolutionists, produced by Strawdog Theatre Company, runs Nov. 15-Dec. 29 at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets are $18-$35 each; visit Strawdog.org or call 773-644-1380.