On the Other Side of Grief
Updated: May 14, 2021
In its first hybrid show, Barnard theater tries to breathe again.
By Sadia Haque
In On Loop, a new play written by Charly Evon Simpson and directed by Alice Reagan, Jo, a young Black woman, journeys through the woods to come to terms with her future and her past. The wilderness helps Jo to move on from the loss of two loved ones and, eventually, to rediscover herself.
Barring winter break’s virtual Varsity Show, On Loop was the campus theater community’s first major staging of 2021. Commissioned by the Barnard Theatre Department, it ran for three nights in February via Zoom. All parties involved had to follow Covid precautions throughout the production, of course: They wore masks, stood six feet apart, and performed in an empty theater. Even with these limitations, the cast and crew brought to life an emotionally driven play filled with relatable characters who are carrying heavy familial baggage. On Loop provokes both tears and laughter in the audience as we join Jo on her journey through the wood, where she tries to articulate the complicated emotions born of grief.
“We can still make art even with masks on, even over Zoom, of all things … and even on a time crunch,” said Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, CC ’21, who played Jo with emotional zeal and heartfelt motivation.
DiMaggio-Potter had the difficult job of expressing to the audience Jo’s multitudinous emotions with half of her face covered. Jo grieves both her Grammie and her childhood friend, Mink, played by Theodorus Elfaizy-Phillips, CC ’24. And though crewmembers had hoped that clear face coverings could be used to help DiMaggio-Potter convey Jo’s highs and lows, they actually worsened the audio. Actors had to settle for masks that matched their skin tones.
“You have to exaggerate your body movements, you have to do what you’re saying,” DiMaggio-Potter said. “I had to really exaggerate, especially when I was angry.” The focus on non-facial physicality worked: In one of the performance’s more palpably anguished moments, DiMaggio-Potter broke down in laughter, which slowly turned into tears, then screams.
Unlike the theatrical aberrations that have burst from various corners of the city in the last year, On Loop was the start of something dependable. Later this term, the department will host the venerable Senior Thesis Festival, running student-directed stagings of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know, and Heidi Kray’s CloudMelt. All three plays will focus on some combination of womanhood, gender discrimination, and gender violence.
Fortunately, most of the actors and crew members were able to participate in person. Only Assistant Director Madison Hatchett, BC ’22, and Asha Futterman, BC ’21, who played Grammie, Jo’s guardian angel of sorts throughout the play, pitched in remotely. Instead of appearing on stage with the other actors, Grammie, who often talks to Jo from the after-life, was superimposed onto the background of the theater with a Zoom filter, imbuing her performance with an ethereal quality and cleverly evoking the void she left in Jo’s life.
“I’m really lucky to have learned from really talented designers who were able to take all of the challenges of working on a show in Covid and [still produce a] live production,” Hatchett said. “It was honestly a simple idea but done on a really high level of execution.”
These days, masked catharsis is not only relatable, but a thrilling opportunity to live vicariously. In a time of endless loss and grief, audience members could feel themselves, face coverings and all, in Jo—including when she tries, again and again, to move on. Deep in unfamiliar woods, she finds both clarity and confusion, and she often lacks the words to express either—instead, she breaks down. Haven’t we all been staring at the ineffable world around us, often unable not only to articulate our grief, but to identify all of its objects?
Breath also features prominently: The play opens with Jo almost completely out of it, trying desperately to regain it. She fights again and again for the space to respirate, especially when her emotions grow too intense or when words fail her. The motif, of course, has a double meaning in the United States in 2021, where over half a million people have died from a respiratory illness and millions of Black people are protesting for their right to live and matter in a country that has always tried to suffocate them.
“In one of the earlier drafts, it said ‘post-Covid,’ so that played into it that this was a world where we understand that breath as being something a little bit more labored, as being something precious,” Hatchett remarked. Though this idea was excised from later versions, the play never lost its focus on how precious breathing easily really is. In one prominent scene, Jo’s mother, played by Daniela Mays-Sanchez, BC ’24, describes her sickness during Jo’s early childhood, and she recalls that breathing was her sign of survival. Even after she recovered, her friends repeatedly made sure she was alright by checking to see if she was breathing properly.
In many ways, Jo’s mother and the other characters play second fiddle to the sources of their respiration: the trees, gloriously painted onto the set by Lex Liang, who works in New York City and off-Broadway. Dirt and plants for Jo to interact with, chairs and tables arranged to form pathways through the woods, the sounds of nature emanating from all corners of the screen all enhanced the staging’s realism. Feeling the dirt under her feet and the bark under her hands is a significant part of Jo’s journey away from her loss. Actors took breaks from their primary characters to act as trees in the chorus, which included Gigi Silla, BC ’24, and Blessing Utoni, CC ’22.
“The ‘trees’ weren’t ever just standing still. They were moving, they had different positions and they would look at me and they’d respond to me touching their chest or yelling at them,” DiMaggio-Potter said. “I thought of them more as people, actually, tree-people, rather than just trees.”
Who could imagine a more restorative design? “People need this time to heal. I would offer this play as a healing play to people,” Hatchett said. “If you need to figure things out, this is that kind of play. This is a person trying to figure those things out.”