.Exodus to Eden

Oakland Theater Project explores ‘History vs. Hope’

By Janis Hashe

In conceptualizing its 2023 season, Oakland Theater Project (OTP) is weaving together the ideas of “wholeness” and “holiness,” according to Michael Socrates Moran, OTP’s co-artistic director. The season’s theme, “History vs. Hope,” encapsulates the thought that if “history is a story from which we can never fully escape, perhaps hope is the force that gives us the freedom to try,” he said. All six of OTP’s plays this season “wrestle with the paradoxical tension between history and hope in today’s world.” 

Exodus to Eden, which opened Feb. 5, was written by Moran specifically for OTP company members. The 17-person piece was inspired both by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the Book of Exodus, and is a dystopian epic which begins in Oakland, and follows the journey of exiled people across an environmentally devastated America, “and into their dreams.” 

“I didn’t set out to write a dystopia,” Moran explained. But coping with the pandemic, and its accompanying terrors, caused him to ask, “How do we reason with the time right now? How do we seek hope in an era that often feels hopeless?”

The story also asks: What do we worship in America today? Can we change it? If so, what could we change it to that would renew our world?

Moran spoke about the process of creating a piece like this play. “In a way, it all begins with a shared ethos [among company members], and finding subject matter that speaks to that interdependence…there is a flow, and a conversation,” he said.

Arielle Powell plays lead character Mariam. She agreed that collaboration has been key in the Exodus to Eden playmaking process. “[OTP] is a family, and we work to discover things in the moment,” she said, and use what’s brought to the table by cast members. For example, “I have a strong point of view,” Powell said, “and [Mariam] has my spirit.”

Moran, she said, presents a story in which America is misguided by trying to be the “biggest and baddest” country in the world, with no regard for the social and environmental consequences. Asked what she would like audiences to take away from the piece, she said, “I would love them to ask how they show up for other people? When do you realize the status quo isn’t serving anyone anymore?”

Powell also emphasized that OTP is a company that prides itself on being from Oakland. “The spirit of this piece is ensemble. I did the show because of the community.”

In addition to Powell, the cast includes Samuel Barksdale, Adrian Deane, Carla Gallardo, Linda Amayo-Hassan, J Jha, George Killingsworth, Adam KuveNiemann, Nkechi Live, Dorian Lockett, Awele Makeba, William Oliver III, Kendra Owens, Rebecca Pingree, Kevin Rebultan, Matt Standley and Dina Zarif.

Through Feb. 26. FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. 

OTP will next present the Bay Area premiere of Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is. The 2018 Off-Broadway hit also had a successful run in London’s West End. Twins Racine and Anaia receive a letter from a mother they thought was dead, causing them to begin “an odyssey from the Northeast to the Dirty South to The Valley, on a mission to avenge their past.” The piece was selected because of its relevance to the season’s theme, said Moran.

“Is history inescapable?” he asked. “This is a play about vengeance, but also about justice, and possibly changing the history of the future.” March 31-April 23.

Edward Albee’s American classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will get a contemporary setting and a re-examination beginning in May. Older couple George and Martha host younger couple Nick and Honey—and the dysfunction and games begin. “You’ll never see it presented like this anywhere else,” Moran promised. Albee’s masterpiece “continues to resonate with its exploration of truth, illusion and of protecting one’s own version of reality—no matter the cost,” according to OTP materials. May 26-June 18

Describing himself as “a big fan” of groundbreaking theater artist Taylor Mac, Moran is excited about the fall staging of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. A 2019 Broadway hit, receiving seven Tony Award nominations, the play is set after the blood-soaked conclusion of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Two servants are “charged with cleaning up the aftermath.” The New York Times called it “fabulous and bedraggled: a defiant and beautiful mess.”

Moran agreed that there’s a theatrical kinship to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in that minor characters are charged with telling the rest of the tale. “It’s a wacky comedy set after we’ve destroyed ourselves,” he said. “And yet it’s incredibly hopeful.” Sept. 1-24

OTP presents its first-ever musical beginning in May, when Moran directs the company’s version of Cabaret. Co-artistic director William Hodgson is double-cast as both young writer Clifford Bradshaw (acknowledged to be based on Christopher Isherwood’s own experiences, as portrayed in his novel Good-bye to Berlin), and the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub. 

As the Weimar Republic fails and the Nazis seize power, decadent Berlin nightlife still flourishes, including at the club, which features singer Sally Bowles. The show continues to “hold an arresting mirror up to a world in danger of repeating its horrific history,” according to OTP materials.

“We’ll be presenting it in a small space, unlike other productions,” said Moran. Oct. 27-Nov. 19

A BOLD RETELLING Geetha Reddy in OTP’s one-person ‘Mahābhārata.’ (Photo by Colin Mandlin)

The season finale will be an encore presentation of Geetha Reddy’s one-person version of Mahābhārata, featuring OTP company member J Jha in a “bold retelling” of the ancient text. The revival from 2019 will include new scenes. 

“Dating from around 800 BCE, the great Indian epic boasts 100,000 verses and a cast of thousands, and is told anew to each generation of Indian children in a version that speaks to the time in which they are living,” OTP materials explain. This piece “examines the nature of conflict, betrayal, and victory through a contemporary lens, and recounts the history of a cosmic civil war in the hope that humanity will learn not to repeat it.” 

“It had a very successful run in 2019, and we are finally able to remount it,” said Moran. Performance dates and venue will be announced at a later date.

OTP is continuing its tradition of offering pay-what-you-can tickets to every performance, along with pay-what-you-can subscriptions for the season. More information, tickets and subscriptions are available at 510-646-1126 or by visiting oaklandtheaterproject.org.

PQ:  Moran, she said, presents a story in which America is misguided by trying to be the ‘biggest and baddest’ country in the world, with no regard for the social and environmental consequences. Asked what she would like audiences to take away from the piece, she said, ‘I would love them to ask how they show up for other people? When do you realize the status quo isn’t serving anyone anymore?’

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