The board of Center Stage got their hands on "Mrs. Harrison" in November 2017, thanks to Sam Buckley and Porter Conroy (the Vice President and Treasurer). At the beginning of January 2018, we decided that Center Stage was going to produce it, and I decided that I would take on the challenge to direct this show. Let me tell you, that was one of the best decisions I have made. I had three weeks to create an entire show. After casting, I had two and a half weeks left for rehearsals before opening...
Thank you, Eric Thomas, for allowing Center Stage to produce this workshop. He was very supportive throughout the process. The cast, crew, and I even got to communicate with him during the rehearsal process. His play deals with microaggressions that people of color face on a daily basis. In addition, this play has themes of questioning ownership of intellectual property. It questions who has the right to tell a story based on the experiences of people that one cannot relate.
R. Eric Thomas is a Barrymore Award-winning playwright and the long-running host of The Moth in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He is also a Senior Staff Writer for Elle.com where he writes “Eric Reads the News,” a daily current events
and culture column. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Man Repeller, and others. His debut memoir-in-essays, Here For It, is due in 2019 from Ballantine Books.
In the case of "Mrs. Harrison," Aisha wrote a successful play about a black maid, Betty Harrison, her relationship with a little white girl, and Betty's tragic death. During undergrad, Holly Palmer, Aisha’s old classmate, told Aisha a personal story about how she watched her black maid, Betty Jackson, choke to death, while she was frozen in terror. Ten years later, Holly effectively reunites with Aisha at their college reunion, inside a faculty restroom. Holly confronts her, accusing Aisha for stealing her story and becoming successful from it. Aisha challenges Holly by saying it was never Holly's story to tell.
"No one would ever tell this dead black woman's story... [No] one is interested, no one is equipped to tell Betty's story" (Thomas).
Holly is too focused on her own character that she never truly considers the experience of Betty Jackson. This is due to the self-indulgent ignorance created through white privilege. Aisha knows every woman like Mrs. Harrison because she encounters similar experiences that every black woman faces, unlike Holly who does not comprehend those experiences. She will never live a life like Mrs. Harrison/Jackson. In the end, Holly has to decide whether to acknowledge her microaggressive actions or continue on her merry way.
The cast and I discussed a lot about whether or not Holly does have the right to this story. We decided that she does not. It is even debatable whether or not Aisha has the right to tell Mrs. Harrison's story because Aisha benefits from privileges that Mrs. Harrison never got to benefit from, like her family's wealth and education. When we asked Eric what he thought, he mentioned that he still questions whether or not Holly is allowed to tell this story. Holly did experience Betty's death first hand. It is traumatic, especially for a child. If anything, Holly can tell her side of the story, but she can never tell Betty’s story. Their lives and privileges would never correlate.
We did not have a scenic designer due to the time limit, so I had to also take on that role. As a director, I like to create a concept of the set beforehand, but I had to take that a step further. I had to do a lot more research on the technical aspects to make the set feasible. I was lucky to have Anna Robertson and Carson Smart as my technical directors, whom I relied on for building.
I wanted the audience to walk in to Theatre 220 and not even recognize the space. I believe we were very successful in doing that. It needed to look like a prestigious, yet comfortable restroom. In addition, we had to make it functional with running water for the sink. There were plenty of late nights trying to figure out all the technicalities. The play does not call for naturalism, but limits the set to be realistic. I am not a huge fan of realism as a style, but I loved the change in comfort. What I love about this play is that it's not fully realistic because of the moments where the characters are taken out of reality, moments we described as podcast moments. These changes in reality are distinguished by their lighting. Anna also designed the lighting to show those transfer of moments, where the characters address the audience. Furthermore, Eric once said that he wishes mainly white audiences would watch the show, so they can become aware of their own actions similar to Holly's. I wanted to include that idea within the set. There were mirrors on almost every flat, and the audience had to literally see themselves while watching the show, symbolizing the call of reflection in their own life.
Thank you to the Center Stage board for supporting me throughout this process. Thank you to Olivia Young, my stage manager, for being so dedicated and willing to learn. Thank you to Kiara Gamble (ASM) and Bridget Ierace (Props Master) for joining the team in our time of need. Lastly a huge shout out and ginormous thank you to my cast, Madison Bailey (Aisha) and Laighton Cain (Holly). Thank you for exploring. Thank you for trying. Thank you for doing. Mrs. H would be so proud.
We had such little time for this show. That is the hardest part - not because we ran out of time. Because we did not get to enjoy this experience even longer.
- Josiah Albright; Director of "Mrs. Harrison"
Click here to see more pictures of the production. Photos by Aidan Toumey.