ATLANTA: Who says you need a play to make theatre? Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, a Pulitzer-winning collection of poetry, is running at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre through Oct. 19. The former U.S. Poet Laureate’s work is a series of linked poems that will be staged word-for-word from the text and accompanied by music, imagery and visual arts. “Unlike a theatrical text,” says director Susan Booth, “poetry is profoundly reliant on an intimate relationship of the content and musicality of spoken word with the interior world of the listener.”
Trethewey’s poetry brings history to life, placing her own experiences of growing up in 1960s Mississippi next to those of a soldier in the Native Guard, the first African-American Union troop in the Civil War. The lives of these two individuals, separated by a century, mix together to explore themes of history, identity, memory and loss. “Ultimately, Natasha Trethewey’s genius is in talking about historical erasure and personal narratives all in one elegant work of literature,” adds Booth.
Aside from its poetry, Native Guard is also distinctive in its staging. The set, designed by installation artist Anne Patterson, is more of “a ritualized space, where our audience sits very much amidst the performers,” according to Booth. She notes that the staging and atmosphere aim to “make sure that the listener has a way not just to sit in the environment, but actually to own it.”
While the first act consists of the material of the play, the second act relies on audience involvement, as members will be invited to participate in open dialogue about what they just experienced. These discussions will be led by a different community leader each night, including Trethewey herself. “More and more,” says Booth, “we’re not making theatre at the Alliance as an end game, but as a means to an end—and that end is a connected community.”