Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Everyone has skipped over the user agreements that are now ubiquitous pop-up annoyances no matter what you want to do on your computer. And we all have had the experience of ads and messages popping up online relating to things we clicked on at some point or, more eerily, just spoke about in the same room with Alexa or Siri. Maybe we view these hyper-personalized ads as something positive, thinking that if we have to deal with ads they might as well be about things we care for. But if we take a moment to contemplate how Facebook and other sites know what we care about, we are forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that in 2020 we are pretty much always under surveillance and someone somewhere is always compiling data about us.
Once upon a time, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI created files about people it deemed as worthy of its attention; it was commonly assumed that these files held all sorts of personal information with details that would amaze the subject. In today’s world, this information is constantly being compiled by the NSA, which since 9/11 has been turning its massive data-mining focus inward at millions of law-abiding American citizens. In 2013, an obscure NSA employee named Edward Snowden rose to international prominence by leaking information about this seemingly unconstitutional activity to the press and then being forced to seek refuge in Russia to avoid charges of treason and espionage levied by an embarrassed US government.
Almost as soon as playwright Christina Telesca Gorman heard about Snowden, she began working on Roan @ the Gates, a play about a similar situation (now having its Chicago premiere at American Blues Theatre) that focuses not only on the whistleblowing itself but on the personal cost such actions always carry with them. In Roan, the whistleblower is a lesbian married to a Black woman: two more layers to add to the central tension. There is no question of this play’s timeliness as America continues to struggle with how we view whistleblowers (see the divisive reactions to the one that led to Trump’s recent impeachment), and racist and homophobic rhetoric has become an everpresent, noxious part of American discourse. But despite its very real stakes—and the tension that derives from them—Roan is undone by its own structure and, even at 75 minutes, feels as if it runs out of steam before it is through.
Director Lexi Saunders gets two excellent performances from Brenda Barrie and Jasmine Bracey as the two women caught up in this difficult and dangerous situation. It’s not difficult to feel for both of them. Barrie personalizes the experience and motivations of the whistleblower who feels it is necessary to risk everything she has ever known in order to do the right thing. Bracey, as the one left behind, struggles with the ramifications of her wife’s decision: the unwanted publicity, the constant demands of the FBI, who refuse to believe she was not complicit, the whirlwind of emotions she feels toward Roan—betrayal, desperate love, protectiveness, anger, and confusion among them—and the pain of separation from the love of her life…perhaps forever. Both performances are powerful, emotional, and energized. And that leads me to the play’s central structural flaw.
This is a high tension situation that needs to feel urgent every moment, but Gorman has written herself into a corner: because being together in the same place is unfeasible, half of the play involves the two women sitting at their computers talking to each other across thousands of miles. No matter how intense the feelings these characters have might be, there is nothing either actress can realistically do to sustain these levels of stress while seated staring at or above a screen. Saunders clearly senses this, as she has each of them get up and move around the room a bit, despite the fact that these actions defy the scenes. Unfortunately, there is only so much she can do.
Both performances, especially Barrie’s, are raw and honest, and it’s true that their visible separation increases our perception of the depths of their isolation, but I can’t help wishing that there was more opportunity for them to interact. The few scenes they do play together shine with shared physicality; sadly, none of these occurs in the last third of the play. This is obviously a flaw inherent in the situation, but that doesn’t make it any more exciting to watch, and to make matters worse Gorman has Bracey’s lawyer character—who we are repeated told is a brilliant and determined litigator—make all sorts of illogical and ill-conceived mistakes that serve mostly to delay the ultimate end of the story, which is so inevitable we see it coming from a mile away.
American Blues Theatre’s design team for this show is as solid as the actors. Sarah E. Ross has designed a nice compact set that integrates some of Jared Gooding’s inventive lighting, and scene changes and time passing are marked by Lily Walls’ varying costumes and Eric Backus’s original music. In all, I don’t think there is a whole lot more that Saunders and her team could have done to make Roan look and feel any stronger, and there is nothing at all that Barrie and Bracey could do to make their performances better. This one comes down to the script, which is great conceptually but fizzles out. Even the aspects added for tension—the fact that these are lesbians and one of them is Black—amount to next to nothing: just a brief mention of the Russian reaction to these things and then nothing. It’s like Gorman had a wonderful idea but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it once she had it going. In that way, perhaps, she is like her main character: trapped in a cage of her own creation.
Roan @ the Gates is an American Blues Theatre production now playing at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, until Feb 29. The show runs approximately 75 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.