LENOX — Theater director Regge Life loves to get inside a theatergoer’s mind; under a theatergoer’s skin. Consider his last two productions at Shakespeare & Company alone: Yasmina Reza’s explosive comedy-drama, “God of Carnage” in 2017, about parenthood, marriage, class, sexism and moral double standards; and, in 2019, Suzan Lori-Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” a searing, gut-wrenching play about two Black brothers caught in the web of American history. Now, Life is back at Shakespeare & Company, this time with British playwright debbie tucker green’s “hang,” a three-character drama about crime, punishment … and race.
The intermission-less play — featuring Cloteal L. Horne, Kristin Wold, and Ken Cheeseman — at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse, where it is scheduled to run through Oct. 3.
The play premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2015 in a production directed by green. Set in a generally featureless space that could pass as a room for interrogations, “hang” focuses on a Black woman, known to us only as Three (Horne). Three years earlier, she and her family were struck by an act of violence so brutal, terrifying and invasive that the deeply traumatic physical and emotional after-effects still manifest among all of them, especially Three’s now 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. The perpetrator has been caught, tried and convicted and now Three, in the company of two bureaucrats, known only as One (Wold) and Two (Cheeseman), is being asked to make a consequential decision that treads a thin line between justice and revenge.
Life came across “hang” during a pre-pandemic trip to London. He was particularly interested in seeing a South African play he thought might have possibilities for production at Shakespeare & Company. It turned out the rights weren’t available.
Friends had mentioned several other possibilities but Life — who knew green’s play, “random,” a solo play for a Black actress about the random shooting of a Black boy outside his school — became increasingly interested in green.
“I kept coming back to her work,” Life said during an interview on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage where he was joined by his cast. “I read ‘hang’ last but it stuck with me most.”
The play had its American premiere in Chicago in 2018, but Life believes this production is the play’s professional regional premiere in the United States. The rights were not easy to get. “She is heavily protective of her work,” said Life, who wound up writing a lengthy letter to green’s agent detailing his approach to the play and laying out his bona fides.
This script is a revision made by green after the play’s London premiere. Green and her agent also insisted that the play be set here, in the United States rather than the UK, so there will be no English accents on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage.
Life said he was drawn to “hang” by the bluntness of green’s writing; the calculated ambiguity. “We are never told what the crime is,” Life said.
One and Two are “trained” to help people through extreme situations, Wold said. “Two and I are caught in the mechanism of how bureaucracy works. We struggle through the play to do what we need to do with Three.”
That means, Wold said, looking for points of connection with Three and, by extension, “into myself.”
Cheeseman likens Two and One’s situation to Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo trying to keep pace with a candy-bearing conveyor belt in a chocolate factory or Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp caught, literally, in the cogs of a machine in “Modern Times.” “We feel stuck,” Cheeseman said. “Are we the machine? [I can’t help but wonder] if we [Two and One] are unwittingly doing more damage here.”
The issues Horne faces in playing Three are profound.
“[As Three] who am I to and for myself? How do I heal? How do I move forward?” Horne asked rhetorically. “After the year we’ve had, [like Three] I ask myself, ‘Who am I? How do I live in myself?”
Horne considers “hang” a “body play, not a head play.
“Green’s rhythms get in your body. We tend to be cerebral,” Horne said.
“[The play is] called ‘hang.’ There is that feeling of suspension, lightness, buoyancy.
“My body is giving out in many ways.”
She is mindful of the centuries of Black women she carries within her body.
Horne is hopeful that at the end of “hang” audiences will feel; will understand that healing “may be initiated by the one, but it spreads outward to us all.”
“I want audiences to show up,” Cheeseman said; “I mean really show up.” For Cheeseman, “gathering in a space for live theater is one of our primary communal experiences. And maybe [people will] come with a new awareness.”
In a tough moment late in “hang,” green brings questions about the nature of justice, of punishment, up close and personal to her audience. It’s not pretty; it’s not meant to be.
“I’m curious to see how audiences will respond,” Life said. “Audiences should be challenged. We need wake-up calls.”