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This week saw the opening of two original works that each tell the story of an ordinary person in inventive ways.

As part of its CSA series, the New Hazlett presented Papa, a new play written and performed by Bailey Lee and co-created by director Coleman Ray Clark. Papa tells the story of Lee’s grandfather, “papa” (played by Arnold Y. Kim) who immigrated to McKeesport from China in 1950, when he was a teenager, and of her father, who died when Lee herself was a teenager. The family story here will feel familiar to many whose progenitors came to the US in the first half of the 20th century: there is xenophobia and an inadvertent name change by immigration authorities at the port of entry, there is the conflict between preservation of culture and assimilation, and there is the climb up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and education that has characterized the experience of so many immigrants, especially those who were able to enter the US during the postwar boom years. Lee’s family history is also a story of biracial identity: both her papa and her father married white women (both the grandmother and the mother are played by Frances Dell Bendert), and the blond-haired, green-eyed Lee has a much deeper connection to her Chinese heritage than her outward appearance might signal. 

The play is structured episodically and jumps around in time from the present day to select moments in the past; Lee functions as a narrator throughout, but also steps into the action to play a customer at her great-grandfather’s Chinese restaurant, her own father as a young man, and herself at various ages of her own life. The work also experiments playfully with different approaches to telling its story. At times it suddenly becomes a musical, complete with jazz-hand choreography; there is also a comic “clash of the Chinese zodiac animals” dance that helps to establish the family dynamic between Lee, her mother, and her papa, a moment of slam poetry, and even some unexpected puppetry. One particularly well-crafted episode comes when Lee is asked at an audition to reveal a bit more about herself: she goes deep into her relationship with her father, and also into her own insecurities and guilt over that relationship. Using the audition as a pretext for such a vulnerable soliloquy is a clever choice, particularly because it allows for a bit of cynicism from the auditioners to cut comically through her solipsism.

Lee seems aware of the danger of getting mired in sentiment, and for the most part she successfully treads the line between sweet and treacly. Frequently she brings in a sour note to add unexpected humor and bite, as when she offers a metatheatrical ending in which she gifts the play itself to her papa. He protests that his life is really not interesting enough to be turned into a play, and in a way he’s right: nothing he’s done or experienced has been particularly unusual or dramatic. But Lee’s theatrical love letter to him and to her family is heartwarming and sincere, and prompts reflection on the ways we all are shaped by the journeys made by the people who made us.

The inventive folks at RealTime Interventions take a very different, and delightfully unusual, approach to telling the story of a real person in their new work People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg. This is the first in what will be a series of “theatrical portraits celebrating extraordinary, ordinary Pittsburghers”; here, the subject of the portrait is Candra, the manager of Games Unlimited in Squirrel Hill, who is not only a game aficionado (as his profession might suggest) but also a lifelong seeker of spiritual knowledge and insight. Like Lee’s papa, his life story is also not a particularly unusual or dramatic one (with the exception of some very high weirdness involving occult phenomena), but RealTime’s theatricalization of his biography cleverly turns content into form by rendering his story as a “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) role-play game (RPG).

I’m going to pause for a moment and confess something: I’m not someone who indulges in games very often (my use of the acronyms above is a brazen imposture). As an adolescent in the 70s I was mystified by Dungeons and Dragons (and by its popularity among the boys I knew); I’ve never understood or been drawn into any video games; and it’s only on rare occasions that I’ll get pulled into a game, usually when visiting family for holidays. So I was a little hesitant when I first saw the description of The Alchemist of Sharpsburg; I worried that it would be too “insider” to gamers, and that I wouldn’t be the audience for this show. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Indeed, even my theatre-going partner – who I would venture to say actively dislikes most games – was thoroughly engaged and charmed by this unique evening of theater.

L to R: Rusty Thelin and Lydia Gibson. Photo courtesy RealTime Interventions.

The setup is this: after a short introduction to establish some ground rules and explain (to the few in the audience who have been hiding under a game-rock for the last five decades) what a Dungeons and Dragons-type role play game is, performer-writer Rusty Thelin dons a hood and assumes the role of Game Master, casting us (the audience) in the role of Candra, whose life then unspools as a kind of quest in the manner of DND or Hero Quest. Thelin narrates the events of Candra’s life, starting from his early childhood, in the second-person mode of the Game Master (e.g., “you head over to your neighbor’s house with your mother…”). Meanwhile, performer Lydia Gibson reads Candra’s own words, as captured through interviews and conversations, and represents his thoughts and feelings about those events. At times, volunteers from the audience come onto the stage to embody and represent scenes from Candra’s life; at regular intervals, Thelin, as Game Master, asks the audience to vote, with double-sided paddles, on where the story will go next (this is the CYOA part). There are also obstacles that pop up, which need to be overcome (or not) through the roll of a large 16-sided die; this, too, brings an audience member onto the stage, and others in the audience can reduce the number that needs to be rolled by giving up a token that represents a sword. As Candra (that is, “we”) gains more understanding and experience through the game-journey, he/we “level up” (apparently there is some complicated math involved in the die-rolling as the levels get higher to which more experienced players in the audience were keenly attuned; Rusty assured us he was doing the calculations in his head). The chance and randomness built into the play’s structure mirrors its content: as in life, paths bifurcate or are blocked, foreclosing some options and channeling the journey towards others.

As you might imagine from my description here, the audience interaction in this production is plentiful, but be not afraid! It’s also low-key, informal, and completely voluntary. Indeed, one of the charms of this piece is that it quickly achieves the vibe of something more akin to an after-school RPG club than a theater. One of the rules established at the beginning of the performance was to “Ask questions,” and to my surprise, people in the audience did, not only about the game itself, but also about some of the ideas and themes raised in the course of telling Candra’s story. Chief among those is the power of stories to shape and transform people. The draw of role-play games is the draw of all storytelling, including and especially the storytelling of live performance: it’s the chance to engage imaginatively with someone else’s adventure, live their truth, and empathize with their joys, pains, dreams, and disappointments. RealTime’s alchemical experimentation with theatrical form is, in the end, not only about Candra’s extraodinary ordinary life; it’s also about the transformative power of story.