Art provides the means through which we understand the world we live in. It’s how we take the absurdity and complexity of life and transform it into an experience that we can examine together. Since 2003, Freehold has partnered with prisons, trauma centers, a youth detention facility, and an active military base to produce the Engaged Theatre program. An extension of the Lab portion of Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio, Engaged Theatre is an opportunity for working theatre professionals –actors, producers, musicians, dancers, and more– to push their artistic limits in front of audiences that demand greater honesty and sincerity. Through the performance, the corresponding workshop where audiences can directly engage with the themes presented, and residencies where members of partnered facilities can utilize their own experiences to create their own theatrical work over the course of an intensive few months, Engaged Theatre allows artists to expand their craft and build authentic relationships and give audiences the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of theatre.
Before COVID put a hold on many theatre productions, a play was commissioned for the 2020 Engaged Theatre Tour: Auntie Val. Written by longtime Artistic Partner and Freehold faculty member Daemond Arrindell, the play is a modern take on Brecht’s Mother Courage. The story revolves around the titular Auntie Val, a woman who prioritizes her own sense of control and those in her inner circle but must undergo a transformation to let go and accept the power of her community. The play uses a live score that is inspired by and incorporates elements of Conscious Hip Hop Artists like Killer Mike, Blue Scholars, and A Tribe Called Quest throughout. To learn more about the creative process and how it has evolved over the past year, we sat down with playwright Daemond Arrindell, lead actress Felicia Loud, and composer/DJ Jennifer Moore. Though there is hope for a live performance this year, there are virtual options currently in consideration.
Freehold Theatre: The original plan was for Auntie Val to be performed last year during the Engaged Theatre Tour. Instead, a workshop was held last summer to accommodate for COVID. How did that go?
Daemond: It was really wonderful to collaborate with all of the performers who were bringing this to life. Having dialogue with other people about these characters was helpful because the characters were living in my head for so long. Having the opportunity to engage with them as real people was great. Collaborating and having conversations with Jen and the brilliance that she was bringing with the role that music plays in the show was also wonderful. It would not have evolved without her.
Felicia: I really agree with that. Watching something be built creatively in the moment can be a little difficult because a lot of the time you are trying to figure out the connections. What is Auntie Val’s connection with this character? What is so important about these people? It’s not August Wilson where you just get into the role and do what you gotta do. When people came to the Royal Room for the workshop, audience members were able to ask questions and be a part of the process during the reading. They told us the things that were clear to them despite the lack of scenery and the fact that this was a new piece.
Jennifer: Theatre is new for me, so the experience last year was new all around. I really appreciated the process, watching everyone work and seeing something come alive from the ground up. I was blown away by Daemond and Robin’s openness to create this together. I didn’t realize how each part –the music, the producers, the actors — how much they brought to life really until the workshops. The show didn’t go to production, but it felt necessary and special in its own way, as well as fitting to what 2020 was. 2020 itself wasn’t a big production but a getting to the meat or heart of things. Some of the meat was gotten to even though the full show couldn’t be done in its glory with the tour.
There was also a huge learning curve for me. Being a part of a team musically, stretching my skills, you know asking how can I bring music to this, and how can I grow and be led in that growth. I appreciated the trust everyone had in what I could do and helped me do it better.
FT: Has Auntie Val changed since the workshop last summer?
Daemond: Um….yeah (laughter). This is my first play solo from scratch. I’ve cowritten a play before, and to some extent since I’m coming from poetry, I’ve been more of a collage artist. I’ve worked in the prisons and created performance pieces out of the writing that they’ve done. It was the same with Welcome to Braggsville. It’s working with a finished novel and constructing a play out of the pieces. Starting with nothing and creating a whole new story that’s very loosely inspired on something else has been an experience.
Felicia has constantly asked “why this” for some of the things that I’ve written in Auntie Val and I’ve said “I don’t know.” I really appreciated these questions because I hadn’t thought about it, and it’s been helpful. As a poet, if I say it is then it just is, but that’s not how theatre works. There has to be justification, so what I’ve been working on is the justification or reasoning for why certain people do the things they do, why roles play out the way they do, and how characters affect one another. Where we left off last summer wasn’t a finished point. The workshop was part of figuring out how to finish it. There have been some changes to the ending, changes to specific characters, the introduction of a couple new characters, and the historical figures are being changed a bit.
Felicia: Who are they?
Daemond: Gonna save that til later. (laughter)
FT: Auntie Val uses live musical elements; how will those be incorporated?
Jennifer: All of the music is part of the score. A lot of the live instrumentation was rooted in work that I’ve done in sound meditation and ambient sound as opposed to just using a record. I’ve used everything from singing bowls to drums in my own work, and the music that is used in the show draws from the connection between hip hop, blues, soul, and funk. In the actual play, I’ll have turntables on stage, there’s even a schematic of what it’ll look like. The play is very much live scored, so sometimes it’ll be records that I’ll mix on stage, other times it will be live instrumentation. It’s one really big mashup. The play itself is rooted in hip hop, and the score is being DJ’d. Literally.
Daemond: When we were talking about the play, one of the things I thought about was how amazing it would be, with hip hop being such an integral part of this show, if we could have a live DJ. When we brought Jen on and she said that she could do it, not just pressing play but spinning the records live, there was this wonderful discovery of the things that she could incorporate through the live aspect like drums, her own voice, and other sounds.
Felicia: She’s a part of the play in a way that can’t be ignored. There are times where characters acknowledge and nod to her. She’s not a soundtrack or invisible to people on stage.
FT: The Engaged Theatre tours at Freehold have tended to be Shakespeare staged with live music, movement, and physical imagery. The exceptions were original works Emboldened: The Rise and Fall of King Bolden the First in 2015 and Veronika Falling in 2004. Auntie Val is also a wholly new creation. How do you think that will change the experience?
Daemond: Engaged Theatre has always used live music with a band or musicians, but it’s never had a DJ. I’m thinking about this generation and how hip hop bridges gaps. I was privy to a conversation at 206 Zulu about hip hop and the question came up: before there was a category of rap music, what was it that the DJs were spinning? The kids there didn’t know, but the answer was everything. Once the DJs start to interact and a record is put on a turntable, everything becomes hip hop. So hip hop isn’t about limitation, it’s about connection. As such, I think that the participants will be able to see more of themselves in these characters and experiences. They’re willing to go there with their own imaginations when we present Shakespeare, but these characters and this story will be that much more accessible to them.
Felicia: Even though the time period for the play is more modern, it still feels like a Shakespearean experience. For our audiences in the outdoor theater who see our Shakespeare, they still have to create an emotional attachment to each character and have this new experience even though Shakespeare is well-known. Because this will also be a completely new experience, it should be similar.
Jennifer: Hip hop feels like Shakespeare. Even though the details are different, there are elements and energy that are undeniably still Shakespearean. He was writing about real things and considering life. That element is still present, they’re not disparate things. It’s almost a very traditional theatre experience enveloped in this hip hop container.
FT: What does this play mean to you?
Jennifer: I don’t have a background in theatre, but it became very clear to me once I was brought on and present with everyone that this play is just life. There are certain aspects of the play and characters that are archetypal. I told Daemond that I actually had an Auntie Val named Auntie Val. Seeing the entire process of this production, I don’t see the play as the ultimate goal. The process of creating the play was and continues to be a ceremony. As we finish it, that’s what we give to people, and that process feels like the most important part.
Felicia: Since the play continues to develop and we’re going to introduce more historical characters, the meaning of the play may change for me. If you ask again next week the answer would change. What I’m thinking of right now is what makes a writer bring back historical figures and how that has importance rather than just using their own church, creating their own characters. I’m thinking about the importance of ancestors and their roles in our lives all the time. It means the acknowledgement of our past superheroes, ancestors, teachers, and influencers.
Daemond: It’s about the forming of the circle, the cyclical. In the same way that Felicia talks about things coming back around and our ancestors, there is strength in the collective. Systems of oppression are not just one person. It’s a system made up of lots of different people doing lots of different things working toward a specific goal. Our strength when it comes to social movements has always been the people. In what ways are we connecting with our people? In what ways are we disconnected from our people? Anytime I go up against a system by myself, chances are I’m gonna lose. But if I have the opportunity to connect with my community, then it’s not about having to be strong, because I have my community. That’s what it comes to for me. At least at present, I may also feel different in a week or two.
Felicia: Yes. There’s a moment in the play where Auntie Val continues to do things alone until the system hits her and she realizes that she can’t. She has to rely on the community and go against it together. It’s powerful.
Jennifer: Daemond does a beautiful job of taking elements of black culture and instead of keeping it small and contrite, something that you can sell and anyone can have access to, expands it to say that this is our interface for life. Hip hop is not just something that is cool or that you bob your head to. It’s how we interface with each other and the world. This is our culture, this is our world, and it gives this respect to it that makes you understand that it’s more than you can take in in just one moment.