Festival51 Brings Women’s Voices to the Stage

fullposerProvidence-based Festival51 is a rare, honest-to-goodness playwriting festival that opens its doors to women’s work. The festival is in its second year, and after seeing this year’s selected plays, I know it will be around for many more.

Festival51 is aptly named. Although women make up 51% of the population, they only write about 17% of theater. As every theater audition heavily populated by women proves, we never seem to have trouble finding women who want to do theater, however, our voices sadly are not being heard on the millions of stages throughout the world. Festival51 seeks to change that.

This year the festival moved to 95 Empire Street, a favorite spot of mine to see theater. It is a black box theater, which keeps the main focus on the words presented. And that’s appropriate here because Festival51 presents new works with words that have never been placed in this order before.

The night I saw the Festival, I was treated to Difficult People by Jean Hurtley Sidden. This is one of my new favorite plays. Apparently the actors carry scripts, and I use the word “apparently” because but I honestly didn’t notice them; the performances were that fantastic. I mean let’s be honest, when you have Geoff White paired onstage with Carol Drowne, the roof could cave in, and you wouldn’t notice. White and Drowne play Coral and Len, a married childless couple that can’t cope with the family that just moved in next door. The problem with this family? They’re building an addition on their house, their dog barks, there is a crying baby from their daughter who is raising the baby as a single mother … and oh yeah, they’re black. Drowne does an amazing job with Coral’s dialogue as she dances around what really makes her uncomfortable about the new neighbors. The neighbors, Leroy, played by Vatic Kuumba, and Maddie, played by Rochanda Delves, and their daughter, Joleen, played by Destinee Magnum, do a fantastic job in their roles. As you watch Christine Dickinson’s portrayal of Sophie, the neighborhood’s nosey newscaster, you can see her inner conflict between doing the right thing and following her true nature. I was embarrassed to find that I had quite vocal reactions to the play in certain scenes. (Yes I was that person in the audience, my apologies!)

Sidden writes dialogue that’s real, telling and doesn’t manipulate the audience. As this play gains more momentum throughout the country, and it will, I can only hope all Lens deliver the greatest line in the play as White does. “Who wants to go through life with earplugs in?” Once you see this play, you will understand the pure genius in this character having said those lines.

After seeing Fabulous Monsters by Diana Burbano and directed by Kate Lester, I am fairly convinced that Lester doesn’t actually sleep, but rather takes cat naps in between shows! She’s everywhere this summer, thank God! This play is a beautifully written tale of the friendship of two female musicians; they tackle everything from love to selling out. This play has Lester’s mark on it. It switches back and forth decades, and there are slides behind the actors alerting the audience of the year. (Along with some incredible music!) However Beatrice Lopez who plays Slade, and Emily Rodriguez, who plays Lulu, play their roles so well that you can tell when they are 16, and when they aren’t. The rest of the cast does a fabulous job as well from Nigel to Lulu’s daughter. I quite often found myself sitting forward on the edge of my seat during some scenes. Festival 51 is not passive theater; you will feel engaged!

There are two additional shows that I haven’t caught … yet! Alergen by Jess Honovich and Birds of a Feather: A Comedy of De-Extinction by June Guralnick.

I must mention local theater artist Jack Albanese. Albanese was part of the festival, but sadly passed away suddenly before the show opened. Before the top of the show, festival producer Leann Heath mentions his contributions to the festival. It’s a devastating moment for our theater community — a reminder that we aren’t here long enough, and we should create as much as we can while we’re here.

You don’t want to miss this festival. Heath and co-producer Corrine Wahlberg have done a fabulous job producing a night of theater that will make audiences think and writers want to pick up the pen. It’s an inspiring evening of theater in an intimate setting with meaty scripts and fantastic performances. One can only hope that Heath and Wahlberg are already teaming up for next year’s festival, as this is truly going to become a favorite in the RI theater scene Don’t miss it!

Festival 51 runs until July 24.  For a schedule, visit their website at festival51.org.




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