All the words a stage

Philly Fringe 2022: Lightning Rod Special presents SPEECH

3 minute read
Maseda, in a yellow scarf, is poised to interrupt Young, who speaks with palms upturned. She wears a headwrap & plaid dress.
When we declaim instead of discuss: Jaime Maseda and Jehan O. Young in Lightning Rod Special’s ‘SPEECH.' (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

In the seamlessly awkward opening lines of SPEECH, the latest from Philly’s Lightning Rod Special, writer/co-creator Scott R. Sheppard, a college theater director cringing under his artfully draped scarf, apologizes to the audience. We entered the Proscenium at the Drake, but now occupy “the Karen”—that is, the new Karen Mastriani performance center, where there’s been a change of program.

Instead of a new play, which has gone down in flames, we’re going to get a panel discussion with professors and student artists who know better than to take any questions from the audience. Sheppard’s faculty figure haltingly sets the scene as if the words he’s not saying are an incoming tide nipping at his toes.

This “poisonous love letter to cancel culture,” written by Sheppard in collaboration with the ensemble and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, immediately tows us deep into the churning waters well-known by every talkback survivor and social-media denizen. Jaime Maseda, playing a well-funded arts fellow with a prestigious title almost as long as his panegyric to his own inspiration, joins Sheppard in the ensemble along with Fernando Gonzalez, Yuki Kawahisa, Terran Scott, Jehan O. Young, and Alice Yorke (who’s also co-creator).

Powerfully weird, increasingly feathery movement sequences alternate with the painfully hilarious panel discussion, an unsettling debate, a bizarre office visit, a wedding reception, and an unexpected audition. The trigger points of gender, race, representation, power, sex, trauma, and identity politics tighten throughout the dialogue, where reconciliation becomes as performative as outing the offense.

Sheppard’s wedding guest vows to better anticipate and intercept the labor that falls on his more marginalized friends; across the table, Scott’s character explains that this attempt to reduce the labor of others is taking up space better filled by his silence.

“Heard,” he intones with tender gravity.

Chowdhury directs the ensemble with a conductor’s precision, from verbal crescendos to marinating silence. The feuding characters of SPEECH rarely address each other; as they argue, they look determinedly at us—capturing the way we declaim instead of discuss, always hoping someone else is listening. Kawahisa turns that lens on the audience, literally, mining our collective eagerness to mug for the camera, even in the middle of a world-premiere show.

This show would be worth seeing twice just for the finely grained verbal and physical ensemble work: a finger drawn across the crevices of the body, the delicate lurch of guilty attraction, the pompous little embarrassments of academia, the words fighting to get out—or stay in.

A set of moveable wooden blocks by Peiyi Wong feels as simple and raw as it is versatile, echoing the way we construct our own malleable realities. Costume designer Kimberly Redman unifies the wide-ranging performance with outfits that evolve throughout each vignette without losing a look distinctive to each character. Lights by Oona Curley emanate from above, within, and behind the set, making it seem as if the blocks themselves are glowing.

Ultimately, SPEECH is hard to define—especially at its most surreal, not every part of this genre-defying performance hangs together. But neither does our own fractured world, with its increasingly tendentious verbal quests to claim justice and inclusion. I attended the opening with BSR associate editor Kyle V. Hiller, who’s still processing.

“It feels like I’m being dragged through the truth,” he said of our time at the Karen, “after getting dragged through the truth every day of the week.”

What, When, Where

SPEECH. Created by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, Scott R. Sheppard, Alice Yorke, and the ensemble. Written by Sheppard, with the ensemble. Directed by Chowdhury. $29. September 27-October 1, 2022, at the Proscenium at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia.

Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required; masks are optional.


The Proscenium at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral bathrooms.

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