I came to this edition of Festival 24 with reservation. The biannual event has been happening at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts since 2008 to showcase talents in the Performing and Media Arts department. Students get together and try to produce a play, a film or a dance from a theme and a twist within 24 hours, starting Friday afternoon. Since I last covered the event in January 2018, the producers decided against including a film in the program, which makes the festival feel interchangeable to the 10-Minute Play Festival, which occurs later in the fall. This semester’s theme is “fear” and the twist is “fish.” As producer Milo Reynolds-Dominguez ’20 pointed out in the program note, it doesn’t really make sense. But that’s precisely the point — to challenge and instigate the creative mind with the absurd.
Fishers of Men, written and directed by Gloria Oladipo ‘21, is a truly fearless piece of art. Rather than a performance, the piece is carried out more as a reading, prefaced by a trigger warning message given by Reynolds-Dominguez and then a statement by the author. Oladipo explained her intention to write the play as a protest against the whitewashing of #MeToo and #TimesUp and her hope to have an all-Black cast. However, there were zero Black actors available. The fact that non-Black people are reading the African American Vernacular English exactly as written was a choice the playwright made not without struggle; “even if these are not Black vessels, disgust is the emotion you’re looking for, not humor,” Oladipo proclaimed.
As some audience members got up and walked out, Oladipo delivered her last line, “white fragility has left the building. Lean in with hearts open and ears up, people.” And the show began. We were immediately pulled into a loaded monologue by Tetra (Sophia Matthews ’22), who unapologetically showed her sexuality while cursing the entire time. She introduced us to Cholly (Adam Shulman ’23 and Ben Lederman ’23), her stepfather, a preacher and the “fisher.” With a passionate chorus by the churchgoers, the chronology shifted back to when Tetra was nine, and Cholly took her out to teach her to fish. What seems innocent enough at the beginning soon morphs into lust. Oladipo effortlessly conveys the complexities of sexual abuse; while the moral depravity is heartbreakingly obvious, the victim often experiences a multiplicity of emotions such as confusion, revulsion and denial. Matthews is impeccable as the vulnerable young girl who grows into a woman still “fucking [her] way through trauma trying to just figure it out.” And Shulman brings the seemingly gentle yet desperately flawed abuser to life. Oladipo’s story reminds me of Paula Vogel’s tragic tale How I Learned to Drive, which similarly explores the issues of pedophilia and manipulation using the metaphor of driving.
Finally, the light dimmed with the gentle, recurring chorus of “Fishers of Men.” I found myself shivering uncontrollably in the dark. This play is a tour de force by Oladipo and easily one that will leave a mark in the history of Festival 24. On top of the issues the text tackles, the performance is a wake up call to Cornell’s art community. What stories do we choose to tell, and who has the right to tell those stories? Matthews mentioned feeling “uncomfortable” going into the role, since the last thing she wanted was to be offensive or seen as playing a caricature. However, she believed that “it didn’t seem right for [Oladipo’s] words to be silenced just because there’s no diversity [in the festival].” In a long and emotional message, Shulman told me he had to cry after the show, and the fact that they were able to give a supporting voice to a cause that is rarely acknowledged or vocally supported by non-black people will have a lasting effect on his mind and hopefully others in the theatre.
The three other plays of the night were all comedies. 7 Circles, which opened the festival, centered around a group of six-year-olds who did something so wrong that they had to be sent to “hell” — which turns out to be the principal’s office. Written by Audrey Rytting ’20 and directed by Cole Romero ’22, the play had the room burst into laughter every few seconds. Quinn Theobald’s ’22 The Baby Room also derived its humor from a cast of young adults playing kids — in this case, the characters are newborns who talk about their fear of going into the world, forgetting about their first friends and being forced to eat fish. If Fish Could Talk by Elise Cording ’20 is an all-too-familiar story about loneliness in college; Alexander Newman ’20 as Calvin the Goldfish was unquestionably the highlight of the play. The Whistling Shrimp, the oldest improv comedy group on campus, also came in to lighten the mood. With suggestions from the audience, “single-use plastic” and “oatmeal,” the shrimps made fun of the current, depressing state of our world.
Swim Away (misprinted in the program as Keep Swimming) was the only dance in the festival. Choreographer and dancer Madeleine Gray ’20 modeled the piece after traditional ballets, where the audience could generally follow a story that they knew. She explained that in this piece, the story shifted each time the score changed; opening with Ursula, Flotsam and Jetsam scheming and frightening Ariel, moving to Dory, lost in the ocean until Marlin came and found her, then shifting to Pinocchio scared by Monstro the whale. Finally, we returned to The Little Mermaid and concluded with Eric defeating Ursula and her posse. I’m definitely not qualified as a dance critic, but the coordinated movements of the dancers were so beautiful, and I found myself captivated even before knowing the underlying storyline.
At the end of the day, when playwrights, directors and performers head home for some well-deserved sleep, we as audience members could perhaps walk out of the Schwartz Center with at least two takeaways: Don’t use plastic straws because the turtles WILL know, and stay authentic to the stories we want, or need, to tell.
Ruby Que is a Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.