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CATCO/CATCO Is Kids Opens 2020-21 Season with ‘Plays Toward an Antiracist Tomorrow’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford CATCO/CATCO Is Kids Opens 2020-21 Season with ‘Plays Toward an Antiracist Tomorrow’
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CATCO and CATCO is Kids return, joining the brave artists pivoting to streaming work during the pandemic, with a new Artistic Director, Leda Hoffmann, in an exciting partnership with the King Arts Complex for KAC’s The HeART of Protest social justice collaboration.

Hoffmann came to Columbus and CATCO from acclaimed runs at Strawdog Theatre in Chicago and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in Milwaukee, WI. Her background in both theater education and directing work for adults makes her uniquely suited for taking the helm at CATCO. 

It also makes her uniquely suited for this first piece, Idris Goodwin’s Plays Toward an Antiracist Tomorrow, a series of short works given free for use by one of the finest American playwrights working. I was lucky enough to speak with Hoffmann via Zoom.

As Hoffmann was transitioning to CATCO, outgoing Artistic Director Steven Anderson had already set up the collaboration with HeART of Protest.

“That was a huge factor in me going, ‘Good, we’re in the right place. We’re talking to the right people. This is the kind of job I want to take,” Hoffmann said.

She continued, “King Arts Complex has really led the way on saying, ‘We’re going to have 46 days of art-making in Columbus, in Central Ohio,’ this fall in the lead-up to the election, in commemoration of George Floyd’s life. So it felt really important for us as one of the leading organizations in town to be a part of that work.”

Hoffmann decided what CATCO best had to offer was that connection between children and adults and she wanted to tap into the community that was already welcoming to her in Columbus.

“It’s been an amazing experience meeting so many people who are happy to share,” she said. “People have said [how] collaborative a city Columbus is, and I just keep feeling that over and over and over again. Right at this time where theater, the way we knew it, cannot happen and we’re having to be innovative and think about new ways to create, it’s been really wonderful to feel like we’re doing that as a community.”

Hoffmann kept an eye on the history of CATCO and its prominence in Columbus theater, but also stayed mindful of bringing in new blood. Up until two months ago, Hoffmann had never met the four directors CATCO is working with on the program. David Harewood is directing ‘#Matter’; Shanelle Marie will direct ‘The Water Gun Song’; Patricia Wallace-Winbush is directing Act Free and Kenny Brown will bring ‘Nothing Rhymes With Juneteenth’ to the (virtual) stage.

I was lucky enough to also get to talk via Zoom with two of these directors – Brown and Marie. 

Marie directs The Water Gun Song, the story of a man (Christopher Austin) struggling to explain to his daughter (Simone Dean) when a water gun isn’t a toy.

“[Of the plays, this was] the one that really I gravitated to, because as a theater maker, as a performer, right now, I want to do things that are about joy,” Marie said. “And in the time that we’re living in right now, that’s just what I need. And that’s what I want to see more of.”

While Marie may be best known as an actor, but she’s been steadily moving to the maker side of things with a celebrated turn as Assistant Director of State of the Arts’ The Color Purple, and a board membership and choreopoem she worked on with Maroon Arts Group.

Regarding the difficulties of rehearsing and building a new piece in these tumultuous times, Marie said, “When we started auditions and into the rehearsal process, I wanted it to feel as normal as possible. One of the favorite parts I have in the rehearsal process is that collaboration, building an ensemble. So one of the big questions I had for myself before I started was, ‘How do I build an ensemble type of connection through these screens [when] they’ve never seen each other?'”

After conversations with other theater makers and online research, “I tried to take a few minutes before we started…to just not jump into things, but just slowly get into the process, have a little fun and go from there,” Marie said.

Dealing with the age gap between her two cast members, she said, “I wanted to hear both of their thoughts within that process. The play deals with issues that I was a little nervous [about] because I didn’t want to introduce these scary topics, these heavy topics of racism and being profiled, to a child that hasn’t really experienced that before. So, I wanted to ask those questions in a way that she could maybe think about maybe other situations in her life maybe might be similar.”

Austin shared experiences growing up and talking to his daughter, and Marie also asked probing questions of the young actor, Dean.

“I was sharing with the cast this was my experience was, as a kid: I didn’t understand it,” Marie said. “I thought it was super unfair and it was embarrassing. When everybody’s playing with water guns or super soakers – I couldn’t touch it, I would get in trouble.”

As she got older, Marie realized there were multiple layers behind that decision.

“I realized now it’s because my mom didn’t want me…to pretend like I was killing somebody,” Marie said. “And then also, because this can be seen as being a dangerous thing by other people.”

It opened up the conversation about what other rules parents might put in place to keep their children safe.

“Is it okay when I go into a store, do I make sure that I look at the clerk and acknowledge their presence so they don’t think I’m stealing?” Marie asked. “Is it the rule of if I get pulled over by a police officer, what do I do with my hands? So, how many different rules are those that keep going on and on?”

I was also lucky to talk with Kenny Brown, director of “Nothing Rhymes With Juneteenth,” where a parent (Sharon Udoh) and child (Preston Hudson) complete a rap about the eponymous holiday for a school presentation, written for ages 9 plus.

Brown had never worked with CATCO in its previous incarnations but he had experience making art during the pandemic and addressing the same social issues at the heart of this project: a piece called Forward with New Vision Dance Company, a spoken-word piece in collaboration with a videographer taking footage from Downtown’s protests, and three other short pieces as an actor in the same The HeART of Protest initiative. 

On the piece he’s working on, Brown said, “With the shows that we’re doing, what can we do in this artistic space that will hopefully help the viewer leave with the opportunity to be a better human than they were when they approached? Educating them about, for instance, in my show, Nothing Rhymes With Juneteenth, I am sure that there will be many, many people who will watch that show and have no idea what the big deal is about Juneteenth.”

He paused.

“Maybe less than there would be before this year, because this was all going on Juneteenth is such a big deal, but let’s call it what it is: 2019 Juneteenth and 2020 Juneteenth were two very different things, but it was celebrating the same thing,” Brown said. “But there may be many people who watch this, who don’t actually know the story behind why that date and that holiday is so important and holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of the people who’ve been educated about it. We have the opportunity to do that, and we can do that in a way that is accessible and feels natural and isn’t a lecture about the reasons why you should care. We’re just giving you the information and you probably should care, but you should care on your own terms.”

When he discussed the project with Hoffmann, the play he chose immediately jumped out at Brown.

“I don’t think there’s any of them that I looked at and I said, ‘Yeah. I don’t understand that experience,’” Brown said, “I’m like, ‘No, no. I get all of these. And I think that they are tremendous.’ But I definitely think that…’Nothing Rhymes with Juneteenth’ was the perfect fit for me as someone who is involved in both the education about Black culture and as well as somebody who delves into rap and spoken word and writing that way.”

I asked Brown about casting, particularly rising multimedia star Sharon Udoh, perhaps best-known as the leader of Counterfeit Madison, as the parent.

“The phrase that I’ve been saying is I need this to feel like Tuesday conversation,” Brown said. “I need the idea of Juneteenth and the idea of the history behind it and the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation made people free and people didn’t know about it for two more years and they’re still slaving away…I need that information to just flow as naturally as if they were doing a project where they had to write a paragraph about what they did this weekend. And it’s very difficult to get that out of someone who brings so much theater to the table.”

Although he’d audition some amazing talents he didn’t feel would fit the production, toward the end of the casting process, everything clicked.

“Sharon was actually an interesting case because I didn’t get to see her until very, very late in the process,” Brown said. “I had my favorites, my list…and then I got hers right when things were about to close. It was such a great fit for her personality for her character because she’s not, and this is no knock to her, but she’s not the super trained actor. That’s not her. Sharon is just so natural in everything that they do.”

That ease and synchronicity between the actors was exactly what Brown needed.

“Pairing Sharon up with our incredible young actor, Preston, [feels real],” Brown said. “[He] blew me away in his audition with his rap rendition from Hamilton. I mean, he had it down pat, memorized. He hit every syllable, had all the voice inflection. I’m like this kid’s got something.

“And I felt like they brought that type of energy to the piece and they showcased that in their audition. And then in our first little meet and greet rehearsal, the two of them, their energy was perfect. So it was definitely a great pairing from the two of them.”

That chemistry was key to creating the takeaway ‘Nothing Rhymes With Juneteenth‘ needed without feeling didactic.

“Looking at people who are going to be able to take this story and this topic, which for some… Again, I don’t know why it’s so uncomfortable,” Brown paused. “I do know why it’s so uncomfortable, but taking this topic that for some is very uncomfortable and making it like Tuesday conversation. He needs help with a project for school. And just like any other project he has for school, this one just happens to be about something that is specifically Black.”

Hoffmann offered this hope for the audience of these short pieces.

“You can watch it if you’re 90, you can watch it if you’re 40, and you could watch it if you’re 7 years old,” he said. “Hopefully, people are going to watch them and then talk in their families, amongst their friends and their communities about how this racial conversation affects people at all sorts of different ages.”

Plays Toward an Antiracist Tomorrow premiere on Saturday, October 24, in a festival from 3 – 6 p.m. with panel discussions and talkbacks, and will be available for streaming on demand after. For a full schedule and to watch, visit catco.org/idris-goodwin/.

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