Mouths of Babes (MoB) presents their new documentary play, “Out NC,” at Kenan Auditorium during Pride month. Approximately three years in the making, the show starts with a simple question: “What does coming out mean to you?” Asked as part of a series of interviews with LBGTQIA people in and around the Wilmington area, it is a jumping-off point to introduce the people that comprise the project.
To be clear, this isn’t one story presented to the audience about one person’s experience; it is a kaleidoscope of short vignettes and monologues, and together they create a larger portrait of a changing community. Twelve actors interpret about 42 people’s stories. Performing this play in Wilmington is particularity interesting, as many people in the audience know the interviewees in real life. So when their names are given, as an audience member, you have to make a choice to view it as an interpretive piece of art rather than a documentary (in spite of the moniker “documentary play”).
For example, TR Nunley, whose age at the time of the interview is given as 41, is played by Alex McFadden, who cannot yet legally purchase alcohol. So McFadden isn’t so much trying to reproduce Nunley on stage as to convey Nunley’s story. McFadden gives us moments of reflection, honesty and questions. They are quiet, beautiful and not overly dramatized, and it also makes them approachable. As someone who knows TR, I have to recognize McFadden is not reproducing TR on stage. I won’t see TR’s infectious grin or hear his wonderful chuckle, but both TR and McFadden do convey kindness, generosity and openness of spirit to all. This is just one of the choices director Trey Morehouse has brought to the production that makes it accessible across boundaries.
Morehouse has been actively working on script incubation with Mouths of Babes; in fact, “Out, NC” was one of several pieces that had public readings last summer. The leap forward with the script is astounding. There are several easily identifiable pieces that have been added to improve the script. One is Frank Harr. Played by Rodney Bullard, the inclusion of Frank’s voice is quite lovely and truly was a missing piece.
During his lifetime, Frank was the consummate advocate, both in the public arena and on a personal level. The play shows us as much as recounted in his effort to connect with a neighbor who claims to never before have met a gay person. Getting to hear a little bit of Frank again was like a bit of magic that made my heart open. As well, including the work of the Frank Harr Foundation, which since Frank’s death has sought to continue the work so close to Frank’s heart, was more important.
The other piece that is really essential to making this a fully developed script is the inclusion of material about Talana Kreeger, who was brutally killed in a hate crime in Wilmington. Tab Ballis (B’Ellana Duquesne) has been working on a documentary about her for several years. Duquesne interprets several characters during the course of the evening, but the performance of Ballis requires the most restraint. The project Ballis is working on is a passionate one, but he always has maintained it is not about him but about Talana. As Duquesne repeats Ballis’ warning that once people hear what happened to Talana it can’t be unheard, the magnitude of what is being presented builds—but without fanfare. It is the chosen understatement—that does not deny justifiable anger, only gives it power.
Duquesne gives powerful performances throughout the night, but her rendition of Ballis haunts. One of the things Ballis says repeatedly in his interview is the newspaper showed the picture of her killer and ran his account of the story. Yet, other than her name and age, Talana was barely mentioned. Thus her humanity was removed from the case entirely.
This section of the piece also serves as the conduit for a part of the show to give focus to lesbians, especially older lesbians. Interviews with Laura McLean and Casey McCreery (both played by Penelope Grover) with Dr. Katie Peel (Em Wilson) and a focus group session showing young women reporting the case at the time, all give rise to a conversation about safety, visibility and perception.
Em Wilson really surprises both as Dr. Peel and as Shelly O’Rourke, a long-time activist in the community and Frank Harr Foundation outreach director. Wilson gets O’Rourke’s cadence so well. With Peel she portrays the sense of a very together, very smart woman who can explain in academic terms everything around her—but you almost want to shake her sometimes just to get a moment of pure reaction and less mental analysis. Wilson’s characters are distinct in their speech and cadence, and create a real sense of conversation with each.
Joy J. James and Amber Moore have a running dialogue as several characters about the particular struggles of people of color in the LBGTQIA community. James also interprets Rev. Cheryl M. Walker of the Unitarian Universalist Church and seems to move with such gravitas, it is not surprising she keeps getting cast in roles like the Rev. Walker or The Prince in “Romeo and Juliet.” She does have beautiful dignity, and she also is a joy to watch when she gets to laugh on stage. She and Moore share humor on stage over and over again. It is commiseration. It is justification. It is coping. They are delightful and infectious.
In a moment of complex emotions that do not give way to pathos, Gavin Tyler and Elliot Smith interpret interviews about the HIV/AIDS experience. Tyler’s Edward is caught in justifiable anger at a sense of isolation. It radiates from him. Smith, by contrast, gives us an attempt to convince himself of acceptance. It is noble and filled with human fear and doubt.
The Rev. John (Austin Garrett) of the local MCC Church appears as a recurring character throughout the show. Garrett presents the reverend as a very introspective man who articulates his personal journey from a place of calm compassion. Looking back at the AIDS crisis in his young life, and the loss of his lover, Garrett, projects peace, calm and love that is difficult to attain. It also leads us with hope. He is a still center while on stage many emotions and journeys swirl about.
Amber Bedell interprets River Hedgepeth and Mickey Johnson. The stories are at times hard to separate. Mickey recounts a struggle with gender dysphoria: what is seen in the mirror not matching what is felt and seen in the mind’s eye. Hedgepeth’s journey with their family toward transgender identity is captivating. Both stories are powerful and evocative.
Morehouse’s use of projections, courtesy of Trevor Tackett, really help the audience follow the flow of information. Names of interviewees are subtly projected on the screen behind the performers. Given the sheer volume of information presented, it is a necessary reminder for the audience in order to follow each character’s narrative.
The addition of Dan Willis’ live music on stage also helps to braid together the themes and strands of the narratives. Plus, the show is staged at Kenan Auditorium which seats 1,000, so it’s not an intimate space, and the seating feels far back from the stage. However, Morehouse has chosen to seat the audience on stage with the performers. Since the show interprets interviews with real people, and looks at how we tell ourselves and others our narrative, Morehouse breaks the fourth wall and the usual audience/ performer agreements about aesthetic distance. He and the performers shorten the distance between us, literally. It is a metaphor for what the show hopes to do: reduce the distance and isolation between people.
The development of the script has brought many people together to collaborate on this project: interviewers, interviewees, actors, musicians, writers, etc. More so, it seems to have found a way to bridge the stories and the experiences of those who feel in isolation, to share in something that is greater than the sum of its parts.