Early in the 5th-century BCE Peloponnesian War, Athens decided to teach the recently vanquished city state of Mytilene a lesson by killing all Mytilenean men and selling all Mytilenean women and children into slavery. A galley was dispatched across the Aegean to execute the order.
The next day, the Athenians had second thoughts, and, following a tumultuous debate, they changed their minds. A second, double-manned galley rowed furiously to overtake the first. It arrived in Mytilene just in time to prevent a mass execution.
Now receiving its world premiere at Madison’s Forward Theater Company in a production running through March 13, The Mytilenean Debate takes its title from this justly renowned illustration of the good that can happen when people take a breath, admit they might have been wrong, and dare to change their mind. It’s also the first play by the acclaimed poet and novelist Quan Barry (she/her), a professor at the nearby University of Wisconsin.
“The heart of The Mytilenean Debate involves second chances,” Barry said when we spoke just before the start of tech. “You can change the decisions you made if you have an open heart.” As Barry’s oldest character fondly remembers of his daughter’s childhood play with a friend: “Do-over this, do-over that, all day long. Maybe you two were onto something.”
Set in New York City in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Barry’s play involves four characters, three Black and one white, reassessing the choices they’ve made. As with those 5th-century BCE Athenians, cataclysmic world events challenge Barry’s characters to reassess who they are, what they stand for, what in their lives matters, and who they might yet become.
Latimer is a renowned heart surgeon whose escape from a hardscrabble childhood in segregated Mississippi risks transforming his ensuing life into a carefully choreographed performance, in which he keeps it together with studied cool lest he falls apart at memories of things past. Latimer’s younger partner Nina, a hotshot television producer who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, is wrestling with whether to become a mother in a country that’s increasingly intolerant of women choosing differently.
And as Nina considers whether or not to abort, Latimer’s daughter Mary is desperately trying to conceive—even as Charles, her white husband and a devoted jazz musician, wonders whether he’ll ever be ready to become a father.
Chafing against both self-imposed and societal expectations regarding who they’re supposed to be, each asks hard questions of themselves and each other regarding parenting, adoption, and reproductive rights; the intersection of race, class, and gender; what it means to be old, and how hard it often is to be young; and how to remake the past, even though it’s not ever even past.
“This is a play about people reprioritizing their lives and what’s important,” Barry said. “Sept. 11 represents one moment when we did that; the current pandemic is another. Moments of great national change can help us do that.”
Speaking to me following a rehearsal, director Mark Hairston (he/him) said, “None of these characters fully recognizes what this post-Sept. 11 world is or will be. It’s making characters reassess, intensifying some dreams but also leading to new ones.”
Keith Pitts’s set design reflects this irretrievably altered world: Rubble marks the perimeter; dangling fixtures evoke the fallen towers themselves. An upstage wall tilts forward over the set, introducing what Hairston describes as a “tension, an element of the precarious,” as characters look upon the “crumbling world” of a vanishing past while trying to find their way toward a better future.
Hairston could have been describing the 2009 birth of Forward Theater itself, during the same year that the Madison Repertory Theatre closed its doors after 40 years. Under founding artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray (she/her), Forward has focused on newer plays while honoring its commitment to provide work for Wisconsin artists.
In working with UW-Madison’s Barry, Forward can honor both missions. When Barry decided to take the plunge and add theatre to her repertoire, Gray welcomed her with open arms.
“When you find a writer as talented as Quan, and especially when she needs something in her career that we have the ability to provide, the way forward is obvious,” Gray said during a phone interview. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to invest our resources in a remarkable artist who’s also a member of our community.”
Gray featured an earlier version of The Mytilenean Debate in the 2020 edition of the Forward-sponsored Wisconsin Wrights New Play Festival, a biennial event involving week-long residencies culminating in public readings of three plays by Wisconsin playwrights. Hairston directed that reading, which took place virtually in June 2020 after the pandemic scotched in-person theatre.
Himself newly arrived in Madison from New York City in 2019, Hairston had been drawn to Forward and to Gray from the beginning. “I loved her energy, her passion, and her vision,” Hairston said of Gray. “And I was impressed by the level of work at Forward itself.”
Gray was similarly impressed by Hairston, recognizing that his commitment to physical, theatrically heightened theatre was exactly what The Mytilenean Debate needed to make Barry’s language come alive onstage. “You need theatrical solutions to deal with the fluid, episodic nature of the piece, and how its episodes are interwoven,” Hairston said of staging Barry’s play.
Indeed, the four characters in Barry’s play feel their way forward through more than 40 vignettes set in multiple locations, unfolding over 100 intermission-free minutes. Most vignettes involve two-character conversations; as many of them conclude, a third character enters and begins to participate, subtly altering the preceding conversation’s direction while one of the two initially speaking characters exits. For those brief moments when the third character first appears, “there are often two vastly different conversations going on at the same time,” Barry indicates in her script.
“Debates are often structured as binaries,” Barry noted. “I’m interested in exploring how we might break up those binaries—or even suggest that binaries are illusions that don’t exist—by introducing a third element.”
To make these pieces cohere and have an active, embodied life onstage, Hairston said he and the team have “treated Quan’s piece almost as a musical score,” echoing Barry’s own assessment of The Mytilenean Debate as akin to a “contemporary, atonal opera.” Sound designer Joe Cerqua’s jazz-inflected, frequently dissonant compositions underscore how lost Barry’s characters often are in their newly fallen world. Hairston said he’s also “approached the play as a dance in which actors use their bodies to convey psychological truths. As they gradually let go of their need for control, they move from direct, more linear movement toward something more circular.”
Hairston accentuates these movements through Greg Hofmann’s lighting design, which utilizes an overhead LED lighting ring, as well as lighting beneath the deck and on the leaning upstage wall to distinguish vignettes, scenes, and even moods, while characters work their way from their inner darkness toward the redemptive promise implicit in the play’s title.
Barry, who has been in the room through large portions of the rehearsal process, has done her part by streamlining scenes and continually revising and tightening her script, which was again workshopped in Madison this past December and which Barry estimates has been revised by a further “two percent” since rehearsals began in early February.
“For the first 20 years of my career, I was a lone wolf, hunkered down at my computer,” Barry said. Now, she continued, “I’m interested in ongoing conversations with others unfolding in real time. Working on this play and being a writer-in-residence this year with Forward have helped me see how difficult theatre can be, while working within the parameters of what actors can reasonably be expected to do.”
Pivoting Through a Pandemic
Like theatres throughout the world, Forward has gone through its own series of pandemic-related adjustments.
During the first week of rehearsals, one of its four actors reported a close contact with a family member who’d tested positive for COVID; that actor participated in the next rehearsal via Zoom and remained masked during the ensuing nine days. Consistent with its Equity contract, Forward has also tested everyone in the rehearsal room three times each week.
From its initial decision to present its Wisconsin Wrights festival online in June 2020, Forward has also continually taken steps to ensure that each scheduled show will go on—and remain accessible to an audience. Although its final production of the 2019-20 season was shut down in March 2020 less than one week from its planned opening, Forward went virtual to preserve its customary four-play season in 2020-21, with the final two productions filmed on its signature thrust stage.
While each of Forward’s 2021-22 season’s four plays is being presented live before audiences in full runs, all four plays are also being filmed and then streamed. Using four cameras and assorted microphones mounted through the theatre, Forward now regularly films an opening weekend performance, which is then edited for video and sound and released during the ensuing week.
“We do not have a dedicated performance just for filming, and we don’t mic the actors,” said Scott Haden (he/him), Forward’s director of marketing and communications. “The filming happens during a regular performance with no ‘do-overs,’” Haden added. Errors that might occur during a performance are therefore included in the stream, so that the end product might feel “organic and theatrical” as well as “cinematic.”
Offering a filmed version and also investing in professional closed captioning makes Forward’s streaming service “an obvious way to address accessibility issues” while being sensitive to patrons who are “not ready to return to live performances,” Haden said. “The response from patrons has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Thinking Outside the Box
Forward’s virtual experience underscores the message of Barry’s play: failing to choose or change—for fear that being inconsistent or different may alter the way we see ourselves and the world—is itself a choice, to double down on personal and political certainties rather than exposing ourselves by exploring new terrain.
“This is a play about the deliverance that can come when people have the courage to reassess themselves, or go after what they really want with more courage and certainty,” Hairston said.
From her first published volume of poetry more than 20 years ago, Barry has repeatedly championed such reassessment, while embracing alternative pluralisms rather than settling for a monological truth.
“We are capacious,” insists the speaker in one Barry poem. “After life there must be life,” reflects a character in one of her novels. “People look at us and try to categorize, try to figure us out,” complains a character in The Mytilenean Debate, even as he resists such efforts to make the “world nice and tidy.”
“What I want, in both my personal and artistic life, is to be free,” Barry said. “And I don’t by that mean the freedom to do whatever you want. Freedom means living in uncertainty rather than presuming that a particular version or vision of the self or narrative is definitive or right.
“In this context, The Mytilenean Debate is about characters journeying toward freedom. Before Sept. 11, their lives had been more scripted. Now the script has been ripped out of their hands, as it has with us by the pandemic. That introduces an element of freedom you didn’t think you had. Will you learn to live with this freedom or latch onto old certainties?”
Continually asking and addressing Barry’s question entails a debate we all desperately need: for ourselves, each other, and the world. Will we stay stuck in our blueprint lives, repeating old designs and inhabiting outmoded structures? Or will we summon the requisite courage and imagination to move forward, so that we might all someday live free?
A Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg, Mike Fischer (he/him) wrote theatre and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for 15 years, serving as chief theatre critic 2009-18. A member of the advisory company of artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at email@example.com.
Creative credits for production photos: The Mytilenean Debate is written by Quan Barry, directed by Mark Hairston, with scenic design by Keith Pitts, lighting design by Greg Hofmann, costume designer by Jazmin Aurora Medina, sound design and music by Joe Cerqua, props by Pam Miles, stage manager: Sarah Deming-Henes, assistant stage manager: Abbi Hess
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