The Show Must Go On: Wilbury and WaterFire’s Decameron, Providence tells new stories for a new era

Providence playwright and spoken word artist Christopher Johnson presents a new work in collaboration with violinist Big Lux in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Christopher Johnson.

The show must go on… That’s how theater troupes felt in the 14th century during the bubonic plague, and that’s how it’s playing out now in the face of COVID-19. Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1352, post Black Death plague of 1348, The Decameron has again become an inspirational piece for creative performing artists. The book, just as this play, is structured as a frame story containing tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence, Italy in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.

Actor Shaffany Paigét presents a new work in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Shaffany Paigét.

Josh Short, artistic director for The Wilbury Theatre Group, struck up a conversation with WaterFire’s managing director, Peter Mello, to see how they might collaborate on an original work that would adhere to social distancing protocols. It was Wilbury’s resident playwright, Darcie Dennigan, who suggested they look to Boccaccio’s The Decameron for inspiration. “I had never read the book, pretty sure I had never even heard of it,” says Short, “but the more we looked into it, the more it seemed to not only offer a structure that would work well within our socially distanced guidelines, but it inspired an urgency and relevance that spoke not only to the obvious bubonic plague / COVID parallels, but to the social justice issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and our current political moment. When I went back to Peter and Barnaby [Evans, WaterFire executive artistic director] with this idea, they went for it enthusiastically. Barnaby knew the book extremely well, and his enthusiasm for the original work has helped us grow the production into something that is grounded solidly in the framework of the original, while still very much about this particular moment in time.”

Bassist Desmond Bratton (pictured) and violinist Ashley Frith of Community Music Works debut a new work in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Desmond Bratton.

Short says they reached out to a few artists they had collaborated with before, and it snowballed from there. Soon, other artists were reaching out to them. “It was important to us that we were creating space and supporting those voices who were being most affected by the COVID pandemic, Black Lives Matter and social injustice, and our goal has been to provide them with whatever support they need to tell their stories.”

Shey Rivera Ríos (pictured) and collaborator Saúl Ramos curate a sequence of performances by local artists reflecting on ritual, identity, home and queerness in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Shey Rivera Ríos.

Audiences will see traditional storytellers, film, visual and mixed media artists, poets, classical musicians, ukulele musicians, spoken word artists and everything in between. “We asked them for a piece that reflects their personal visions of an idealized world through whatever mediums they chose,” explains Short. “I expect each of the 10 performance spaces to be its own unique experience every night.” He goes on to say, “It’s an exercise in public health, social justice and idealistic futurism, but our ultimate goal with this piece is to remind people, in this time of both divisiveness and physical distancing, of what it means to have a shared experience and a sense of community.”

A photo from the work of Don Mays / AFRI Productions’ mixed-media presentation of These Truths, presented in Decameron, Providence. Photo by Don Mays. 

The Wilbury has had a great relationship with WaterFire for years — they’ve co-produced the Providence Fringe Festival since 2017 — but this is the most closely they’ve collaborated. It’s a great marriage of art and efficiency. Short says WaterFire “is an organization that routinely goes into downtown Providence and completely transforms it into a living art piece within a few hours, and then breaks everything down as if it never even happened. There’s a lot of work that goes into a theater production, to be sure, but to be able to see the amount of care and consideration that the entire WaterFire organization puts into every detail of their work has been inspiring.” 

Post COVID, what will the new normal look like? “The reality is that learning how to operate safely in a pandemic is something that we need to learn how to do, and this is a production that is so deeply rooted in the best practices of public health and safety that it shows us how theater can continue to survive. And the truth is that artists should always be growing and innovating anyway. It’s a shame that it takes a pandemic to shake some of us out of our complacency, but if we can look at it with some optimism we’ll see that this is our opportunity to create work that transcends that which we have settled for. The artists involved in this project, the teams from Wilbury and WaterFire and all of the volunteers helping us make the production happen can see that there is no point in waiting and wishing for the world to return back to normal. Our normal was filled with inequities. Our normal is where George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black lives are lost, children are put in cages at the border, and despite it all, theater companies continue trotting out one mundane play after another. We don’t have to go back to that, we can create a world that is better, and I believe that it’s the artists who will imagine that new world and we need that, now more than ever.”

The performance spaces are all outdoors, spread out across the grounds of the Waterfire Arts Center and the American Locomotive building in Providence. Audiences will walk in separated groups from one stage to the next. All of the spaces are fully handicap accessible. 

For more info, call 401-400-7100 or 401-855-2460, or visit The Wilbury Theatre Group on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Tickets must be purchased in advance at Decameron runs thru August 22 at the WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St, Providence.