On Saturday, Sept. 12 and Sunday, Sept. 13, the SUNY New Paltz theatre department debuted a virtual performance of “Cadillac Crew,” their first production of the 2020-21 season. The play — written by Tori Sampson and directed by Martine Green-Rogers — was performed as a live reading over YouTube livestream, in light of safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Cadillac Crew,” holding tight to the department’s goal of promoting shows that focus on social justice issues, takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. The scene is set as four activists eagerly await a speech by Rosa Parks. As the story begins to unfold, however, the protagonists begin to wonder if the movement towards equality really includes them as women.
With charming wit and harrowing realities, Sampson’s play reminds audiences that a push for human rights did not begin in April of 2020; it began decades ago with souls who put in laborious effort only to remain unnoticed and unappreciated. “Cadillac Crew” pushes the boundaries of what is demanded for under the umbrella of social justice, asking what it really means to have a voice and emphasizing that the harshest injustice is erasure.
The plot surrounds four women, Abby (Courntey Williams), Rachel (Tatiana Saintilus), Dee (Timika Edwards) and Sarah (Emily Llewellyn), each of whom beautifully came to life on the livestream. This was no easy task for the actors who both rehearsed and performed in separate locations and then were brought together with WebEx. Remarkably, Williams, Saintilus, Edward and Llewellyn had extraordinary chemistry — even virtually — so much so in fact, that at times I forgot they were all in separate homes.
It is impossible to describe their performances separately, as the performers in Sampson’s play are such a unit (or a crew), but each woman breathed copious amounts of passion and energy into Sampson’s words.
“As theater artists, we just need the ability to gather and tell stories, even if it’s not the most ideal way of gathering and telling a story” director Martine Green-Rogers said, who had a large feat of pioneering WebEx direction for the department.
What does it mean to direct a play where the actors are unmoving and without contact? Green-Rogers answered this question, having the performers use the space of their “box” in the best possible way. “My assistant director [Dom Torrez] has been lovely . . . helping me brainstorm ways to maximize the use of the space of the box . . . silly, but fun ways of dealing with [it],” Green-Rogers said.
The way the characters looked at their cameras and placed their focus in different locations in their WebEx square, truly provided the audience with the illusion that the actors were together in the same place, at the same time. The short, choreographed, dance-like sequence, that each actor performed in her own space, added a playful flare in a heavy play. This drew a parallel to Sampon’s often playful, humorous lines weaved into a heavy topic.
The lighting design by Travis McHale and sound design by Natalie Houle were the cherries and sprinkles atop Green-Roger’s sundae. McHale created portable lighting boxes that each actor could have in their performance area. The use of the lighting box created depth in the two dimensional space, but didn’t take away from the rawness of the format.
The reading would not have been the same without the music chosen by Houle. The pre-show music made the time period clear, which was absolutely necessary considering the lack of set. The repeated anthem of “Feeling Good” added a sense of drama, while the comical choice of “Whistle While We Work,” added a sense of contrast for the intense subject matter.
“There have been challenges. Whenever there is technology there’s always inevitably a challenge . . . but it has allowed us to continue to talk and share stories and to commune with one another,” Green-Rogers said.
“Cadillac Crew,” by Tori Sampson is an important story to tell at this moment in history. The cast and crew told it beautifully.
For more information about upcoming productions, visit www.newpaltz.edu/fpa/theatre.