'America v. 2.1' is funny, but 'so scary'

Award-winning playwright shows dangers of revisionist history in new play

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PITTSFIELD — America was never great — at least not for many of its inhabitants.

That is one of the messages of Stacey Rose's "America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro," a play about a troupe of black actors in "the not too distant future" who must perform a revisionist history of "The American Negro." The play within the play is a satirical interpretation of historical events, highlighting how the past can be rewritten to serve those in power and distance them from oppressive behavior.

"I'm kind of this person who always goes, 'OK, so what if this thing gets really strange, then what happens?'" Rose said during an interview before the show's opening.

Directed by Logan Vaughn and starring Ansa Akyea, Jordan Barrow, Kalyne Coleman, Peterson Townsend and Peggy Pharr Wilson, the play is in the midst of a world premiere run at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage through June 30. At 1 p.m. Sunday, Rose will also participate in a talk at the Pittsfield venue with Julianne Boyd, the company's artistic director, about the revision of black Americans' history and its implications.

"I think nothing is truer than the victors are the ones who get to write history, so either it's intentionally revisionist or just by default revisionist because you're telling it from a very specific lens, and you don't have enough voices in the room," said Rose, who is black.

Rose mentioned a recent article in The Washington Post about the Statue of Liberty Museum. The story noted that the Statue of Liberty "was originally designed to celebrate the end of slavery, not the arrival of immigrants," an element of the monument's history that the piece called "long-forgotten."

"It's so funny to me that this recent Washington Post article about the actual origins of the Statue of Liberty has blown people away," Rose said. "I have known this since I was, like, in high school."

Slavery and other vital subjects often get glossed over, according to Rose.

"We need to talk about the founding of this country, and we need to reckon with our history in a very real and direct way. It doesn't feel good ... but it's necessary," Rose said.

In Rose's work, which was the first winner of Barrington Stage Company's Bonnie & Terry Burman New Play Award, spoken and unspoken white biases have become absurdly plain in this future world.

"The good White Citizens of the United States took on the arduous burden of feeding, clothing, and caring for the [country's] newest citizen: The American Negro!" one of the actors, Grant (Barrow), says early on in a part about slavery.

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The performance in the play not only exalts the actions of white America but also demonizes the courage of black activists such as Harriet Tubman. During backstage scenes, the audience gets a sense of the burdens weighing on the four black actors who must spew this propaganda: Grant, Leigh (Coleman), Donavan (Anyea) and Jeffery (Townsend). They are all overworked, repeating nonsense because it's their means of survival in this future realm.

"The cast and I talked very much about how this is representative of black folks or other people of color, or poor folks who go to jobs they can't stand every day, and have to put on a winning face or have to do what they have to do, or they're not going to work," Rose said.

In the play's cruel working environment, freedom's relativity is on display.

"They're just in this situation where it feels like they've got liberties, but they really don't," Rose said.

While Grant and Leigh are younger and were thus raised in this deluded atmosphere, Donavan and Jeffery can still remember a less preposterous time. They handle it differently, Donavan resigning himself to the white "Voice" giving them orders (Wilson), Jeffery rebelling. Their struggles, and the group's, heighten as the play moves through an altered timeline that takes us up through the 47th presidency and mishmashes names. For example, "Baracka Sadam Osama," "Jesus Christ Lincoln" and "Donald Reagan" are all characters in this world. The comical monikers provide some of the play's humor, which is abundant but dark.

"This play's so funny and so scary," Rose said.

Rose began writing it in 2015, when she was a Dramatists Guild Fellow. Her first reading came in 2016 at The Fire This Time Festival. It was the same first draft that she sent to Barrington Stage Company's debut national new play contest, which received 461 submissions and awarded Rose $25,000, as well as the world premiere production. Rose called the honor "kind of amazing."

"Playwriting is a hard and often very low-paying job where you're constantly applying for things, trying to get your work into things, so you've become accustomed to just applying to things and not getting them, or applying for them and getting, like, semifinalist," said Rose, who is currently based in St. Paul, Minn.

Boyd called Rose's play "provocative" and "uncompromising" in the award's late January announcement release. Before that time, Rose and Vaughn had continued working on the play at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Morocco. In Pittsfield, she hopes that audiences will see how history repeats itself and reflect on detachment in the U.S.

"You get mired down in, particularly white audiences, wanting to look at the black experience as a separate thing from being American," Rose said. "But the black experience is quintessentially American by its inception, by everything. There's nothing more American than the black experience here."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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