After almost a year of dark stages, it seems that a theater company’s ability to pivot to socially distanced content reflects its artistic mission and structure. More traditional companies struggle to replicate splashy family musicals that will entertain their subscription base. However, with its experimental stance and core acting company, the Wilma was well positioned to adapt its output to an audience stuck at home. The HotHouse Short, a series of streaming performances beginning with Code Black Planet and Clay, continue a strong season.
Leveraging a community of artists, the Wilma’s HotHouse Company offers a series of free virtual works throughout February. While they are not universally successful, the first two shorts provide an enticing opportunity for experimentation. They point to a potential model of small, artist-led original work that could sustain the theater as a laboratory of artistic talent.
Productions at the Wilma can be hit or miss. Sometimes they brim with raw energy and bold vision. Other times, an idea that might have been interesting in the rehearsal room can seem solipsistic and pretentious on stage. This experience is replicated in these virtual projects.
Windows and mirrors
A surreal blend of hip-hop, poetry, sketch comedy, and visual collage, Code Black Planet is an Afrofuturistic transmission of Black life in Philadelphia in 2021. In disjointed segments, the all-Black ensemble (Anthony Martinez-Briggs, Jaylene Clark Owens, Malika Oyetimein, Brandon J. Pierce, and Taj Rauch) tackle colorism, misogynoir, and the role of faith in Black life. Ideas abound. As genres, methods, and topics shift, the audience is challenged to laugh, listen, and think.
In an interview featured on the production’s website, cocreator and writer Briggs talks about theatrical stories being both windows (for audiences whose cultural background is different from the artists’) and mirrors (for audiences who see themselves on stage). He encourages viewers to be open to both experiences. This invitation to be challenged, to see yourself, and to see others reflects the deep artistic generosity and intellectual intent of the piece.
While Code Black Planet is genre bending, expansive, challenging, and at times explosive, Clay is internal, delicate, and slow. Led by Krista Apple, the all-audio experience starts with a call for participants to find a mug and fill it with something to drink. We are asked to consider the vessel; remembering the clay, the liquid, the heat. Our guided meditation is interrupted by fictional accounts of a mug being created, broken, left behind, and remembered.
The guided meditations are affecting, bringing listeners into their body, inside their home, with their objects. The audio-play is less engaging; it drags on as new characters are introduced, and the melodramatic writing is ill-suited to the sparse audio production.
These two pieces speak to the Wilma's commitment to an artist-led process. By letting its creators play with new ideas, techniques, and technologies, the company provides its audience with a glimpse into the messy world of creation. I hope the artists take these lessons with them when we can safely return to the theater.
Image description: Actors Brandon J. Pierce and Anthony Martinez-Briggs in a scene from Code Black Planet. Pierce, wearing a yellow t-shirt, is at the center, with an overwhelmed expression. The figure of Martinez-Briggs, wearing a patterned hat, red and white polka-dot shirt, and yellow scarf, is reproduced in three places: leaning into each side of the image, and a small figure seeming to stand on Pierce’s shoulder.
What, When, Where
Code Black Planet and Clay. By the Wilma HotHouse Company. Available to stream through July 31, 2021 (Code Black Planet) and March 7, 2021 (Clay). Register to stream for free through the HotHouse website.
Transcripts and audio-described versions of Code Black Planet and Clay are available.