.Oakland Theater Project Looks to the Past, Present and Future

Second full post-pandemic line-up includes 7 plays haunted by the past and inspired by The Town

The pandemic was hard on live theaters. Many small companies did not survive it. But the innovative and scrappy Oakland Theater Project was able to draw inspiration from its home, scrappy and innovative The Town, and will now present its second full post-pandemic line-up starting in March.

In its 12th season, OTP will stage seven plays, ones that “echo from the past into the present—in hopes of illuminating the future,” according to the company. The season’s theme, “Ghosts of Past, Present and Future,” references not only characters in A Christmas Carol, but quantum physicist Ebenezer Scrooge’s promise at the end of the story: “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!”

OTP Managing Director Colin Mandlin said, “There were a number of plays that excited us. Important themes emerged, given the specter of Donald Trump and the war in Gaza. These plays speak to the cyclical cycle in which we are haunted by our past.”

The season kicked off March 1 with the Bay Area premiere of Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Cost of Living, about two disabled people and their caretakers, all of whom are struggling to make their lives meaningful.

Cost of Living is directed by Emilie Whelan, who directed OTP’s critically acclaimed production of Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus last year. Though not familiar with Majok’s writing initially, “I wept when I read it,” she said. “It’s a gentle play about intimacy among people who cross paths.”

As with the Broadway production, actors with disabilities will play those two characters. “Martyna is very specific about this,” Whelan said, “and the Bay Area is a perfect fit [for this casting].” This includes Christine Bruno, who plays Ani, “and was part of the development of the play in 2017,” said Whelan, as well as Matthew Placencia, playing John, whose character has cerebral palsy.

“Ani is 41 [when the accident that disables her happens], while John was born with his condition,” Whelan said. “Ani begins the play hating her body, while John is used to moving through the world with exceptionalism.” The two caretakers, Eddie and Jess, have their own struggles. Eddie is an unemployed truck driver and Jess, a first-generation American, is almost homeless and trying to earn enough money to send back to her mother.

Cost of Living is written in nine scenes, and “the art is in the transitions,” said Whelan, “so that the audience is feeling one long brushstroke. Everyone is kind of spiky, coming from their loneliness.” The play’s title reflects “how expensive everything is, and also how hard it is to figure out how to open up your heart.” Cost of Living plays through March 24.

Next up, April 26-May 19, is the world premiere of Red Red Red by Amelio Garcia. This “genre-bending queer love story” takes the Greek myth of Geryon, a triple-bodied, red-winged monster who is slain by Herakles (Hercules) and instead uses inspiration from Anne Carson’s novel, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, in which Geryon is a boy who is also a winged, red monster. Later in life, he falls in love with Herakles.

Asked about the challenges of staging this piece, Mandlin noted, “There will be magic realism, video projections … all leading to a sense of awe.”

Another world premiere follows, June 6-23—Michael Wayne Turner III’s one-person show, The Ghost of King. “How do we reckon with the whitewashing of MLK?” Mandlin asked. This piece uses as its starting point Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement, “Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears the soul of this nation. I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”

OTP produced Turner’s Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter in 2022, and that play is now being produced both off-Broadway and in London. “You don’t want to miss this performance,” Mandlin said.

In a first-ever co-production with Marin Shakespeare Company, OTP will present both parts of Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning Angels in America. When the now-classic premiered in 1991, its groundbreaking themes about the AIDS crisis, gay partnerships and the “ghosts” that hover over American life made headlines. Now, said Mandlin, its other questions continue to resonate.

OTP materials ask: “Can the American democratic system and rule of law deliver…justice? Is the system capable of facing difficult truths and transforming, or is America bound to struggle under a political system intent on exclusion and scapegoating?”

Angels’ major character Roy Cohn—political fixer, McCarthy-era lawyer and closeted homosexual who died of AIDS in 1986—was an important, early Donald Trump mentor. With Trump’s continued presence on the political stage, Cohn’s malignant lessons are again “frighteningly literal,” Mandlin said.

Part I of Angels in America will play Sept. 27-Oct. 26; Part II from Oct. 11-27, both in Marin Shakespeare’s new 165-seat indoor theater.

Another partnership, this one with New Performance Traditions, will present Dave Malloy’s “ghost story-musical,” Ghost Quartet, Nov. 1-24. Malloy has been much in East Bay theater news in the past couple of years, with hit stagings of his Octet at Berkeley Rep and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at Shotgun Players. The piece, described as “a song cycle about love, death, and whiskey…spanning seven centuries,” was supposed to be staged by OTP in 2021, Mandlin noted, but the pandemic interfered. The company is looking forward to presenting the “lyrical, theatrical” musical, he said.

The 2024 season’s final presentation, another world premiere, by Oakland native Marcus Gardley, is still TBA. Gardley, whose Dance of the Holy Ghosts, The Gospel of Lovingkindness and Lear all played at OTP, has been a bit busy, said Mandlin, writing the screenplay for the current film version of The Color Purple, and serving as co-chair of playwriting at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale. OTP materials promise the premiere “will feature Gardley’s signature lyrical language, humor, profundity and epic narrative sweep.”

“It will speak to the Oakland experience,” Mandlin said. Performance dates are Dec. 6-22, with the venue also TBA.

Mandlin described his own journey with OTP. A company co-founder, he left in 2017, but returned in 2020—just as OTP began facing the challenge of weathering the pandemic. “The past couple of years have been surviving, adapting and facing rising costs,” he said.

But “the artistic team is doing a stellar job. Our growth is now strong, and we want to fulfill the potential that exists for us,” he added. “We’re developing our arts education program. And the city of Oakland deserves a marquee theater company.”

Oakland Theater Project at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way,
oaklandtheaterproject.org. 510.646.1126.


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