Vibrant Chico State production offers insight and hope
The timing couldn’t have been better. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, one day after American voters elected a crude, narcissistic and utterly unqualified man to be their president, Under Construction opened at Chico State.
This is a play that offers a vision of an America that is engaged in an endless process of becoming. It encourages us to have faith in our country’s ability to adapt to challenges. The opening-night audience responded fervently.
The play’s author, Charles Mee, wrote it in 2004 as a response to the re-election of George W. Bush to the presidency. He wrote it, he said, “to console myself, to remind myself that this was not the final act of modern American history, not the end of the story, not the last word of American politics. No, I told myself: This country is forever under construction.”
What is true of the country is also true of this play. Mee has posted his script online and advises all interested performers to help themselves to it, at no cost. Not only that, he offers alternative scenes and invites performers to rework the script however they want, even adding new material of their own devising.
The play lends itself to collaboration. Eschewing traditional narrative and character development, it offers a collage of words, music and dance glued together—sometimes tenuously, it’s true—by its effort to answer certain questions. They are, as Department of Music and Theatre faculty member William Johnson puts it in his director’s note, “What is America? What is American? What is it to be an American?”
These are heavy questions, but this production is anything but ponderous. Indeed, it’s a wild ride, a sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, often touching journey through 14 vivid, dynamic scenes that illustrate the human consequences of war, racism, homophobia, misogyny, greed and injustice.
Under Construction begins, appropriately enough, with a Thanksgiving dinner scene straight out of Norman Rockwell. Indeed, the artist’s famous “Freedom From Want” portrait of a similar dinner, with Grandma setting the turkey at the head of the table, is projected on the back wall of the theater. The year, we’re told by an off-stage narrator, is 1943.
In Mee’s original, there is only one table and one family, a white family. In this production, as reworked by Chico State’s self-described “Construction Crew,” there are two additional tables, one for a black family of four, the other for a Latino man and his daughter. Whole sections of new dialogue have been added to suggest that these three families have very different reasons to be thankful—and also to be angry.
There are 13 actors/dancers/singers in the cast, and they all rotate through several parts, bringing tremendous excitement to each role. Some scenes are set in the Rockwellian past, others in the present; some begin in one era and then suddenly switch to another. It can be confusing at times, and some scenes drag a bit, but overall this is a gripping and impactful production, to the credit of cast and crew.
The most significant change made to Mee’s script is in the last lines. The original reads, “We are in the constant process of construction, making and remaking. … This is what human beings do. This is the human project as long as we are alive.”
In the Chico State production, the very last line reads [emphasis added]: “This is the American project as long as we are alive.”