by Nancy Churnin, Dallas Morning News 1/2/19
FORT WORTH — Bwalya Chisanga trembled when the pink ball landed in her hands. She's one of five actors in Stage West's Everybody who finds out on stage, during the performance, which parts they will be playing.
The pink ball meant that Chisanga was playing the central role: Everybody.
"I was really scared," she says on the phone the day after the Dec. 29 opening. "But I was also really excited."
None of actors interviewed before or after the show had fully anticipated how challenging it was going to be.
The idea is more than a gimmick in this 2017 off-Broadway play, a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. It underscores the randomness of life itself. Everybody is summoned to give a final accounting of life by Death (Amy Mills, in red and black, rolling her eyes at how little everyone understands about her job and what she does and doesn't know.)
Frightened, Everybody asks Friendship, Kinship, Cousin and Stuff (the other roles chosen by lottery) to accompany her. In a stirring and unexpectedly funny production, the ensemble renders these abstract characters real and immediate and, in the case of Chisanga's Everybody — wrenchingly vulnerable.
The performers say they also didn't fully appreciate how deeply the theatrical journey would ask them to examine their own lives.
Jovane Caamano has a family member fighting multiple kinds of cancer.
"This play has made it more real for me that anyone can go at any time," Caamano says. "If we think that's not the case, we're fooling ourselves. That recognition doesn't have to be morbid or sad. It can spur us into making the most of every moment because the number of moments are limited, no matter how many there actually are. It has helped me push myself not to sell myself short, not to let opportunities pass by because I'm afraid or worried that things might not work out. It makes me want to try and be with people that you enjoy and connect with and love."
The playwright took his inspiration from the 15th-century morality play, Everyman, which asks you to consider your life's brevity and what we do and don't take with us in the end. He gives it contemporary sass, with mature language and lots of sly surprises that break down the walls between the performers and the audience.
Another thing no one anticipated was the original director who had cast them, Tiffany Nichole Green, dropping out before rehearsals to direct the national tour of Hamilton that will open in Dallas April 2.
"It was like life imitating art," says Shum, who is also Stage West's managing director, regarding the unexpected element of losing their director.
Shum gives credit to Jake Nice, who took over as director. "He jumped in with both feet and steered this crazy train to production."
Nice says he embraced what he refers to as "an extra layer of randomness."
A graduate of Southern Methodist University, he'd been working and waiting for years for his opportunity to direct a show at a local professional theater's main stage season, he says. He didn't expect it would happen this way, working with someone else's cast and design team. At the same time, he found the situation oddly fitting.
"It helped me to relieve myself of some pressures. I'm a perfectionist, and I soon realized about a week into rehearsals, I needed to drop that attitude, work with what I've got. In a way it was as if I'd been chosen by the lottery as well to step up and prove myself just as the actors are chosen each night."
As he saw the performers worry about the permutations, not knowing the part they'd play or who their scene partners in the many possible permutations, he asked them to do what he, in the end, learned on the journey.
"I asked them to breathe, to let go of the need to know and to have specific answers to everything and to do the best with what you've got — to find your way through it, knowing it will be different each time. Sometimes there's real freedom and liberty in that."