Dallas — The seismic cultural shift that presented Barack Obama as America’s leader was interpreted by many as a sign that the country had entered the era of post-racialism. The many who thought this were not people of color because POC knew better. Knew that the beginning of an era suggests the ending of the other but in this case, the other had not ended at all. Still, something was different and in need of defining. What would happen if the labels disappeared and boxes for checking are gone? How would a person of color define herself or manage her own identity?
This is not an unexplored topic, nor is it a new conversation. Therefore, the challenge for a playwright becomes how to pierce through an existing conversation in a different way. Christina Anderson’s poetic solo work, Hollow Roots, examines whether it is possible to live one’s life in a neutrality where race and gender have no effect. Once pulled, the character is presented with new questions. Can a person of color have neutral narratives? Or live in a world of post isms? And if this is possible, who would want to live this way? Why?
The southern premiere of this work opened the 2018-2019 season for the South Dallas Cultural Center, who presented in partnership with DNAWORKS, an arts and service organization founded in 2006 by Daniel Banks and Adam McKinney. They are relatively new to the Dallas area, having moved here two years ago. Hollow Roots was first featured in the New York Public Theatre as part of their Under the Radar Festival in 2013. It appeared in Dallas as a limited run of three performances.
Nicole Gramlich assumed the role of the character telling the story, and while this is a solo show, Gramlich was not alone onstage. Maritri Garrett created a soundscape with her voice, the cello and hand percussion, having their own conversation, creating pleasurable stylings which like Gramlich were neither boxed nor labeled. Gramlich introduced her character as a paralegal who plays cello. One wondered whether this is real or post for her. Is she a paralegal who plays cello, or is she actually a cellist who works as a paralegal?
Gramlich walked through the possibilities of living as a person of color without color, which would mean a loss of heritage, a hollow foundation.
The importance of the music cannot be overstated. Anderson incorporates musical references into the script, calling out the notes in a rhythmic pattern—C, G, A-flat, B-flat—repeated several times. After Gramlich ponders a question “could the neutral have a culture?” she calls out the notes E, F, D-flat. Garrett and Gramlich were in sync.
Daniel Banks’ vision for the piece created an atmosphere of tentative calm. The audience entered the space to the music from Garrett who was seated with her cello downstage right. Driscoll Otto’s lighting design was unobtrusive, matching the music in tone. Gramlich began seated upstage off-center, moving efficiently, only when helpful to the narrative. She was comfortable with short silences which for this piece, are important.
Adding a layer to Banks' concept are Katherine Freer’s wonderfully artistic video projections which were like animated conceptual monochromatic paintings. These, along with the music, were extensions of the storytelling, in particular, Gramlich’s memories.
The thrust of Hollow Roots is to stimulate thought and conversation. Built into the evening’s program was a session with the audience that did not follow the standard talkback format. Alternatively, it became the audience’s turn at storytelling. This is in harmony with DNAWORKS goal of promoting harmony and healing through dialogue.
Anderson has found a relatively fresh way of attacking a well-worn subject. The production is efficient, smart and clean. This was a good choice to open SDCC’s season, offering congruence with the Center’s mission and the abstract artworks on exhibit in the gallery.
The production of Hollow Roots is over in Dallas, but this weekend, it plays Kansas City. Find out more info here.