Dallas — Generations of Adam, the latest company-created work by Artstillery, is disturbing. That is the point, in fact. The work relays multiple stories of sexual and psychological abuse framed within patriarchal structures such as the family unit and Evangelical Christian churches.
Created from real-life testimonials by 20-plus community members from the Dallas area over a period of seven months, the resulting stories are not something that “happens elsewhere.” Billed as a “trauma-informed immersive production,” the printed program — designed as a “Church of the West” brochure — does not list individual cast members or other production assets. It does state that the piece contains: “Sudden loud noises, strobe lighting effects, moments of darkness, adult language, sexual situations, adult humor and content and audience participation. Potentially disturbing, realistically depicted physical and emotional abuse and may trigger an adverse reaction.” It also lists various suicide prevention, trauma support, veteran support, recovery programs and mindful embodied counseling resources.
The topics explored within the installation/performance at Artstillery’s small West Dallas warehouse space (which shares a space with an actual church) include: coming out as a gay man in an Evangelical household, sexual abuse in the church, body shaming and psychologically abusive relationships, trauma held in the body, self-healing our child selves, and pregnancy care centers.
If you go into this experience with an open mind and heart, it will become evident why the Dallas Observer named Turkish-born Ilknur Ozgur (Artstillery founder) Best Director in 2019 for the work of the collective’s work in Dirty Turk (read our review here). Here she is credited with the “mind-mapping” of the trauma stories, working with therapist/consultant Concetta Troskie, who created “embodied movement modalities.” Ozgur also assumes the role of Lilith, who is married to Mateo (Rafael Tamayo), a church deacon with a secret fetish. As we saw in Dirty Turk, the casting is thoughtful in its racial and cultural mix.
Working with 13 cast members, Ozgur and company create an environment that offers an intimate and close-up view into the lives and psyches of two families; a sexual-predator preacher (DR Mann Hanson) and his demon (Tori Hartz); and the child-selves of the sexually abused girl (Ava Whatley) and the repercussions into adulthood (Morgana Wilborn). Boys-selves also take part in this story, as Sebastián (Sebastián Suarez), a young Latino attempts to come out to his homophobic, evangelical parents, Alberto and Socorro (Jose Armendaríz and Priscilla Rice). Adam (Logan Mars), another child/adult character, is also a victim of an abusive situation within a church setting. Little Eve is performed by Ava Whatley, with her adult version, Eve, played by Morgana Wilborn. Lucila Rojas plays Annie, another character affected by trauma.
The younger versions of Sebastián and Adam are skillfully depicted through minimalist puppetry (designed by Noel Williams), with their torsos and faceless heads outlined by hoodies, and the puppeteers (Steven Downer and Max Torres, respectively) in full view of the audience, as extensions of the puppets.
In a sense, there is no place to hide in this play, even though the patriarchal, machista male characters seem to believe that their actions can be justified through a misinterpretation of fundamental Christian beliefs. This is not about knocking religion, though. It is about calling out the mechanisms that allow abuse to take hold in the lives of victims. It is about the victims gaining the courage to speak out and eventually to heal. As such, this is a regenerative experience.
Opening night ran a bit too long (100 minutes); the various story lines had been clearly delivered and experienced, ready for closure about 15 minutes before it ended. While there are various seats available throughout the space, in order to follow various stories, audience members have to move about the space. And, even though it is an immersive experience, other than watching and walking about, the audience is not asked to participate.
The layout of Artstillery’s performance is similar to Dirty Turk, including where family dining table is located (Johnny Rutledge is the scenic designer; with Michael W. Cleveland on sound, lighting and media). A wooded area on the east side of the structure is particularly appealing. The outdoor driveway with garage door, facing Fort Worth Avenue, has been enclosed to depict the preacher’s pulpit, with nearby pews for the cast to sit while in church, or praying. In the center of it all is a water-filled bathtub, serving as a metaphor for a baptismal fount as well as the waters that purify (various characters are immersed in it throughout, fully clothed, with smartly placed towels nearby).
I found the Latino family Alberto and Socorro realistic; they speak Spanish for their private conversations, and English for the larger narrative. A homophobic Latino father faced with a homosexual son’s (Sebastián) coming out is something I have experienced in my own family; the trauma of that experience can last for years.
Multiple conversations occur simultaneously, thus offering audience members the opportunity to get close to the content of most interest — but you’ll miss the other conversations.
Hanson induces shudders from the audience as he repeats “my little dove” to his victim(s). Thankfully, Eve and her various iterations find their way towards accepting themselves as pure; owners of their own bodies. Adam and Alberto, on the other hand, do not evolve past their familiar paradigms. That choice suggests that it is up to women to dismantle harmful patriarchies, including the right to give or not to give birth in unwanted pregnancies.
Generations of Adam opened to a full house with many of the audience members staying for an after the show, open-ended talk back led by Ozgur. Given the sensitive subject matters, this play is, at times, tough to watch. The Artstillery collective tackles the topics with integrity, sensitivity and artistic flair.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She is working on her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia.