Some theatergoers consider the “fourth wall” a necessary facet of contemporary theater. This invisible curtain between the audience and the actor creates an illusion that the former is looking into the world created onstage, but when the fourth wall is stripped down, conversations can go deeper than they ever would have before.
“In This Place,” a new play by Ain Gordon starring New York City-based actress Michelle Hurst, relies on the abandonment of the fourth wall. The play is a deep conversation between the actress and the audience, befitting the Kitchen Theatre’s venerable motto, “Important conversations happen in the Kitchen.”
The one-woman show tells the story of Samuel and Daphney Oldham (Hurst), two African-Americans living in 1830s Lexington, Ky. Samuel buys freedom for his wife, Daphney, and their children before building a grand home — a home that Daphney (now a ghost returning to tell her story) has a difficult time remembering. The play revolves around her bare-bones retelling of their courtship and eventual marriage amid the turmoil of a slavery-torn nation.
Slavery is an era of American history with a clear, dominant narrative that undercuts the intricacies of individual blacks’ stories. Often limited to textbook literature and brief chapters in high school history classes, the topic does not get enough face time in the grand scheme of public education. “In This Place” brings a single tale of heart-wrenching struggle to the forefront of the Ithaca theater community.
Stripped bare of any elaborate set design, the play is performed in front of two flat-screen televisions and a single wooden chair and table. Two stage managers sit on either end of the stage, dressed in black, controlling the images that appear on the screens, which illustrate and emphasize certain parts of Daphney’s visceral story. As she mentions her work-strewn hands, images of dark wrinkled hands appear on the screens.
Daphney walks the audience through vignettes of her life, adding commentary on her state of mind and being. Her accounts are raw and invigorating, and her frustration, joy and sorrow ricochet through the Kitchen for the duration of the show, filling the play with emotional substance and relevance.
She engages the audience the entire show, calling for audience participation as she asks viewers to share memories with her for “safekeeping.”
“What color did your mother wear when she wanted to look pretty?” she asks the audience in Act 2. A polyphonic chorus of answers shoots out from the 73-seat space: “Navy. Pink. Yellow.” Moments like these make “In This Place” just as much of a two-way theatrical experience as a conventional play.
The weakest aspect of the production is the multimedia presentation that accompanies Daphney’s story. Her words are strong enough to stand on their own, but with the added distraction from bolded words and disjointed interview clips, the audience’s attention may be drawn more to the visuals as opposed to the already-enticing story. The setup is a little too theatrical for a show that aims to tackle the traditional functions of proscenium and black box theater.
With the Kitchen Theatre moving to its new space on State Street in the near future, a play about the intrinsic beauty of a historic space called home couldn’t come at a better time. During the reception in the historic Mural Lounge following the show, a Kitchen Theatre patron asked dutifully, “Will there be a Mural Lounge like this in the new space?” His question was returned with a soft rumble of nostalgic laughs, and the owners returned the question with a smile and a nod. This was a moment shared not only by Daphney as she reflected on the joy in her life, but also by the Ithaca theater community as it plows forward into the future.