'When We Were Wanderers' brings reality to theater

Review: The Community Folk Art Center's production of the play 'When We Were Wanderers' focuses on race and gender issues with personal vignettes devised by the actors and director.

When We Were Wanderers, presented by the Department of African American Studies and the Syracuse University Community Theater Program, is a powerful portrayal of the role race and gender still play in society in 2013.

The play was conceived and directed by Ryan Johnson-Travis, an SU professor and director of the SU Community Theater Program, as well as an experienced writer, director and performer. When We Were Wanderers features seven women, all SU students of varying ages, from different backgrounds, and identifying with different races. It is a devised play, meaning it wasn’t created with a script as a starting point, but instead is the product of deep conversations among the actors and director, using the actors’ own personal experiences and stories.

It’s different than the plays we’re used to seeing, with a beginning, a middle and an end, with conflict and resolution. Instead, it’s a collection of short vignettes, personal monologues and symbolic actions.

When We Were Wanderers has a lot of conflict, and a lot of memorable but unconnected moments that surprise and horrify the audience, without any resolution.

The play presents real situations involving race and gender — some surprising, some humorous, some horrible. The way these experiences are presented in the play make them more powerful. It conveys to the audience that situations like these happen every day, with no consequences.

The short vignettes are a collection of moments that may not mean anything to anyone else, but they stuck with these women. A girl is excluded because she looks a certain race, even though she isn’t really that race. A girl’s friends won’t hang out with a group of her other friends because “there are a lot of black people over there.” A girl’s acting teacher tells her to act “more urban,” telling her in not so many words to act more black.

Cadienne Obeng acts out a memory from her freshman year in high school, in which a boy in her class drew a line in black pen on her arm to “see if it would show up.” He and his friend were surprised that it did. The acting from Obeng, along with Zora Iman Crews and Anju Franklin as the two ninth grade boys, make this scene believable and all the more shocking.

Franklin later delivers a passionate and provocative monologue about the time a boy in her high school group of friends used the N-word and how it led her to question herself and her friendships. The delivery is full of emotion and vulnerability, and it prompted snaps from the audience on Tuesday.

The play is divided into sections where each woman’s personal experiences are acted out. Each actor also delivers a personal monologue, sometimes clearly connected to her experiences, sometimes not. There is no set design, no costumes, no props. It is an all-black room, a small platform, foldable black chairs, an intimate audience and actors in street clothes. It is just these women and their stories. The simplicity of the production puts all the emphasis on the content. Because the actors are telling their own stories -- stories that truly mean something to them -- it is clear that the emotion is real. You can feel the disgust, the discomfort, the disappointment.

There are a few moments in the play that get confusing, where the connection isn’t immediately clear, but it is easy to get past that. Each individual vignette is powerful and telling. Some of them are easy to relate to, some are shocking and terrifying, but they are all compelling and thought-provoking, which is the point.

The play prompts the audience members to pay attention to the way race and gender work in their daily lives. They are invited to stick around after the show to discuss the performance and the issues it raises.

When We Were Wanderers will be playing again at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St.

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