Ohio University’s Vibrancy Theater is debuting its first new production Absentia, running Nov. 18 to Nov. 20 and Dec. 2 to Dec. 4 at the Forum Theater, 35 S. College St. The play is directed by Tanisha Lynn Pyron.
The show was originally supposed to debut in the spring of 2020 but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pyron has enjoyed her time working on the production with the staff and students involved.
“It’s definitely been an amazing experience directing with this amazing collection of artists of color,” Pyron said. “There’s a lot of passion in these artists, and obviously, a lot of ambition.”
Pyron’s spin on directing is what audiences should be excited for as the scheduled production comes closer to its debut.
“I’m a storyteller,” Pyron said. “When people ask me what I do, I just let them know that I am a griot in the African-American tradition. I’m a subversive storyteller and a lot of my stories are about the Black American woman’s experience, but they’re told in ways that are subversive or that make you uncomfortable. I don’t mind a play making you think, touching your emotions, making you cry, making you laugh. I love the potential of theater and to come into this new work.”
Vibrancy Theater feels what makes its company stand out among others is its mission, found on its website: create a playground for student theater artists and generate a space for Black, Indigenous, Students of Color to develop artistic leadership skills.
Its vision is to explore the major themes of humanity that challenge the dominant white narrative. Vibrancy Theater’s staff hopes to build community with other marginalized groups through using explicit anti-racist procedures and practices.
By integrating these procedures and practices, the staff also hopes these efforts will allow them to “share a myriad of unique and culturally relevant theater that is reflective of the world we live in and of the world we’ve been dreaming of,” as the website reads.
The company also promotes BIPOC playwrights, actors, designers, stage managers and directors in order to give students of color an outlet for creative expression.
Kaleb Jackson, a senior studying acting and the co-artistic director, said the company works extremely hard to amplify BIPOC voices.
“The best way to amplify BIPOC voices is telling the stories that are about those people from the periphery,” Jackson said. “Mainly we focus on BIPOC stories. For instance, our first show, Absentia, it is a Black story, but more so than just being a Black story we have an all-Black cast, we have a majority BIPOC team, which is directors, designers, technicians from the school. The play is written by a Black woman who is actually an alum from Ohio University, so it’s taking into consideration what we have here in terms of the student population and demographics in the School of Theater and also outsourcing where we need it.”
Written by OU alumna Olivia Matthews, Absentia tells the story of 20-year-old Esther Harris who lives in the secluded Florida woods with her single father and pet rabbit Robyn and dreams of being reunited with her long-lost mother. When her father kills Robyn, Esther runs away in search of her mother and the old life she once had.
Esther and her mother eventually reunite. The real question audience members will have to ponder is if Esther can adjust to her new life with her mother.
Esther is played by Taylor Roberts, a senior studying acting. Roberts said it was challenging developing her character, especially with the occurrence of the pandemic.
“Absentia holds a special place in my heart,” Roberts said. “I am cast in the role of Neo/Esther. When the show was initially being done my sophomore year, I was also cast as Neo and Esther. It’s a really weird experience sometimes because two years have passed and casting has changed, and we have a different director. I’m two years older now, so it’s interesting because at times I play a 12-year-old and at times I play a 20-year-old. I’ll be 22 later on this month and sometimes hopping back into that mind space is like I don’t even know how I did this.”
Roberts and Jackson feel what makes this production stand out from others is its storyline and themes.
“It’s a story about trauma, Black female trauma specifically, which doesn’t get talked about a lot,” Jackson said. “Stylistically, I would say that Oliva Matthews, the playwright, a lot of her style is working with nostalgia through realism, but also adding in just tiny little glimpses of surrealism where we leave reality momentarily.”
Roberts feels the authenticity and realism of the show will make audiences really connect with the story.
“It’s the first show Vibrancy’s putting on, but also this story is not pretty,” Roberts said. “This story is raw, it is ugly, it is tender, it’s sensitive. It’s not easy. To me, it’s not the type of show where you’re singing and dancing and you’re just happy; not to say that shows like that are bad, don't get me wrong, we need escapism sometimes. But this is a show that dives right into the nitty-gritty of talking about child abduction in the Black community, which are topics that we don't hear about.”
Roberts thinks Absentia’s discussion of real-world issues is extremely important. In the rehearsal process, the group went over some statistics and stories about Black women and young girls who had gone missing over the years, most of whom were never found or found dead. Roberts said these stories aren’t public enough, despite their importance.
“I think that most shows can’t offer that and don’t,” Roberts said. “I feel like that’s the main thing. It’s an ugly story that hurts, that challenges audiences, but it’s a beautiful story that’s beautifully written and I think that it makes people be more compassionate, which I think is something that we always need. There just tends to be a lot of division and divisiveness within the world and I think it forces people to open their eyes, which is really important.”
Pyron wanted to emphasize, without spoiling too much of the plot, that this isn’t a definitive story or one story that tells all BIPOC stories, but it does tell an authentic story that can tap into the universal theme of motherhood and what mothers really mean to the audience.
“I will say one of the motifs and themes is mothering,” Pyron said. “There is something to how trauma is passed down generationally; how trauma is expressed in family and day to day moments with your family. There’s a facet of the show that really speaks to nurture and the power of nurture and also what happens when it’s absent. There’s some humor to it; there’s some good southern cooking. I think the play is written in such a way that it really reigns true of the Black American diaspora experience.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this story stated that Pyron is an OU alumna, when she is not. This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.