When it comes to public theatre, there are many topics that are considered to be taboo. Topics like sex, religion and violence are often avoided onstage, but possibly the most taboo topics are those of a political nature — many shows aim to not divide their audiences and to provide an experience enjoyable for everyone. The Face It! Theater Company of Binghamton is seeking to go against these preconceptions about theatre by producing plays exclusively about political issues, with the goal of not just performing for a community, but creating a conversation within it as well. Its latest show, “The Fertile River,” has heavy political themes and ethical questions for audiences to consider while watching the heartbreaking story.
“The Fertile River” takes place in 1958 North Carolina and revolves around an underprivileged African American family. The family is being pressured by a white government employee who urges them to sterilize their daughter, who has a mental disability. The events of the play are fictional, but are based upon the real actions of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina from 1933 to 1977. The play was written by Vincent Terrell Durham, a native of Binghamton.
James Michalec, ‘13, who is the founder of Face It! Theater and director of “The Fertile River,” formed the theatre company to put on political shows, something he found to be lacking in the community. Michalec believed that theatre could be more than just entertainment, but a place to start genuine conversations about real issues.
“This is the kind of stuff Face It! Theater is looking to do,” he said. “Not to shock for the sake of shock, but to shock in terms of stimulating the audience into discussion, about who we are in our communities and what our priorities are.”
The show touches on many sensitive subjects, including racism, sexism and ableism. Although the drama is touted as a political play with sociopolitical themes and messages, the creators say they are careful not to present a one-sided argument to audiences.
“We’re not trying to impose some kind of agenda onto the audience members,” said Natividad Guillen, the stage manager of the show and a Binghamton University senior majoring in integrative neuroscience. “We want to offer something that’s not talked about often in conversation or history textbooks, and we want to know what the audience thinks and to have them question things they didn’t before.”
Mayah Wells, a junior majoring in theatre, plays the titular role of River in “The Fertile River,” and her character is at the center of the show’s conflict regarding the controversial eugenics program. Playing a character that has a disability proved to be a difficult role, but she said she believes the experience taught her important messages she wishes to share with audiences.
“What I took away from this is that people will take advantage of you when you don’t think they are,” Wells said. “You have to open your mind to see what people are doing or saying to you, because if you’re close-minded and just seeing the little things in life, you won’t see the big picture and live the life you’re supposed to live.”
The show premiered Sept. 14, with additional performances on Sept. 15 and 16. The remaining two shows will take place on Friday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational Church at 30 Main St. The show is free to attend.