A razor-sharp critique of media and justice in post 9-11 America
In this age of 24/7 media witch hunts and instant mass outrage, any national security issue can morph into World War III overnight. The Word and the Wasteland explores the psychic aftermath of a terror attack on American soil, issuing a crackling rebuke to splashy, media-generated narratives that too often overrule the simple, often unsatisfying truth.
Perceptive playwright Timothy Guillot has clearly spent his fair share of time absorbing cable news shows and police procedurals. His script overflows with morning show outrage, breathless news reports, and fire and ice interrogation scenes ripped from “Law and Order”. These cultural touchstones serve as an angry, charged backdrop, contrasting with the surprisingly gentle relationship that evolves between the central figures of poet and presumed terrorist.
The show opens dramatically, with an immersive, surround sound account of a massive terrorist attack on American soil – the worst since 9-11. Screens all around the audience broadcast sharply-produced news reports that run together into a cacophony of disaster. Director Joshua W. Kelley and projection designer Ryan Smith have created an amazing spectacle through a parade of fake news segments, turning the small Source Theater into a nightmarish media black hole between live action sequences.
As the news dies down, two FBI agents enter, animatedly discussing their investigation. Canny veteran Richard, played with wearied charm by Greg Thompson, and his hard-charging young partner Katherine, played by the steely Sarah Ferris, pore over details from the scene of the attack, looking for any clues. Their uneasy chemistry rests on a bed of nails: Richard is deathly afraid of becoming irrelevant, while Sarah wants to make a name for herself, by any means necessary.
The Word and the Wasteland
1 hour: 50 minutes
Festival dates: June 5 – 28
1835 14th Street, NW
Tickets: $10 – $32
Details and Tickets or call 866.811.4111
Their savior comes in the form of aspiring spoken word performer Elizabeth (Tamieka Chavis.) Elizabeth normally broadcasts her compositions to a small YouTube audience, until the suspected terrorist Benjamin requests that she read his cryptic poems on live TV, instantly catapulting her to internet stardom. The fame proves double-edged when the FBI detains Elizabeth to help them solve the case, turning her into every bit as much a prisoner as Benjamin. Joshua Simon practically vibrates with menace as the dead-eyed captive with a slow southern drawl. His penetrating glare creates an arresting counterpoint to Elizabeth’s passionate pleas for reason as they sit inside his tiny cell.
As the drama wears on, the danger and stakes increase, revealing cracks in the armor of the four protagonists. As a second terror attack pushes the characters to their emotional and physical limits, the line between justice and vigilantism blurs. The breathless finale presents a stinging condemnation of Patriot Act-era “Us against them” ethos and a media industry that thrives on fear and exaggeration.
The Word and the Wasteland is a gutsy production that dares to contemplate the humanity of those accused and caught up in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. And in a country where our leaders routinely refuse to address government surveillance, prison reform, or even the benighted Guantanamo Bay, it’s a bracing shot of straight talk.
The Word and the Wasteland by Timothy Guillot . Directed by Joshua W. Kelley . Director: Joshua W. Kelley . Featuring Tamieka Chavis, Sarah Ferris, Greg Thompson, Joshua Simon, Zach Bopst, Robbie Hayes, Brian S. Allard . Sound Designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Costume Designer: Heather Whitpan .Prop Designer: Britney Mongold .Projection Designer: Ryan Smith . Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba .Stage Manager: Sharon Achtenberg .
The 2015 Source Festival is produced by CulturalDC. Artistic Direction by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Reviewed by Ben Demers.