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As a performer and reviewer, I didn't know what "ethnography" or an "ethnographer" were before this weekend. I attended UNC Department of Communication's project in partnership with Arts@TheCore: Cassandra Hartblay's play I Was Never Alone. Hartblay is an ethnographer, an academic word that in layman's terms means a cultural scholar. She studied in Northwest Russia from 2010-14 and felt that a report on her observations, which included and focused on adults with mobility difficulties, could only be accurately reflected through the words of the people themselves. Presented as a series of monologues, the words of several interviewees have been adapted to create this work.
At the heart of this complicated sounding play is a very simple result: we are all people living our lives, but sometimes we need extra help. The seven characters all offer up slices of their lives, speaking on their specific mobility issues, significant events in their lives, and some of the pleasures and pains of their worlds. While some are deeply entrenched in calls for social or political action like Tania (Germona Sharp), Sergei (Daniel Doyle), and Rudak (George Barrett), interviews with others are light and humorous, like those of Alina (Cuquis Robledo) and Vera (Ash Heffernan), or tinged with sadness as that of Anya (Meredith Kemple). Some even struck me as slow, not because of the performances or the writing, but just because they were normal people talking about their normal families and everyday lives.
What I found extraordinary was the collaborative and inclusive feel of this production. Actors ranged from Ph.D. candidates to theatre majors to psychology undergraduates, but they presented this staged reading as experts. While several of the actors had visible disabilities, they did not always play characters that had the same disabilities as the actors themselves, forcing the audience to evaluate their assumptions. One of the most notable and impressive performances came from Stevie Peace Larson playing Vakas, whose Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)* impedes his speech and movement. Larson deftly transitioned from suave narrator to stuttering poet, but what stuck with me was that he was not mocking or imitating, but living as this character and showing the audience what this interview must have really been like.
Joseph Amodei's tech design was a huge part of the show as well. I was expecting actors to sit and read lines, but the production verges more towards the staged and blocked side of the semi-staged reading, with sound effects, projected videos and images, and music that adds to the present-day setting and authenticity of the interviews.
The narration came across as a little strange. Sometimes it came from the characters themselves, sometimes other actors read the stage directions from upstage, which was off-putting at the beginning until the rhythm of the show was established.
The cast and crew appeared after the production on Friday night for an open discussion with the audience. Hartblay described the workshopping process and how Joseph Megel's direction puts the audience in the role of the interviewer, opening up the fourth wall and allowing UNC faculty and students to place themselves in Russian people's shoes and explore this vastly different culture. However, it also served as a reminder that we are all people, whether "normal" or "disabled," whether we go to "regular" school or not.