Piecing together a play that picks apart

The University Xperimental Theatre’s “American-isms’ dissects patriotism and American identity

by Katrina Wilber

More often than not, directors hold a clear vision of what they want in a show. But, as Jonah Winn-Lenetsky found out, sometimes a director has to be flexible.

The theater arts graduate student directs “American-isms: A Workshop in Experimental Identity” at the Xperimental Theatre. Despite his outline, he had to throw away some plans when rehearsals began. The process was much like the play itself ” a deconstruction of previous notions.

Winn-Lenetsky’s frustration with the decidedly partisan atmosphere in America before, during and after the 2004 presidential election pushed him into this project.

“Nobody would stop to hear other points of view,” he said. “And, although I was disappointed with the election’s outcome, I still listened to people who had different thoughts than I did.”

“American-isms” takes a closer and sometimes harsher look at what it means to be an American in the early 21st century. The show neither supports nor denies the reliability of the American dream, but instead, gently pushes away layer upon layer of this and other American myths.

Winn-Lenetsky wanted to assemble a cast of conservative, liberal, American-born and foreign actors, but that didn’t exactly happen. His five cast members are all American with political views “from just left of center to very left,” he said.

“The cast breakdown changed my vision, but my goal has stayed the same,” he said.

The show focuses on questioning nationalities and the way Americans see their own histories.

Through images, narratives and fractured memories, the cast has a dialogue touching on the war, discrimination and the debate about birth control. Within these issues, it looks at what it means to belong or not to belong in this country.

During a two-month process, Winn-Lenetsky, the cast and the stage manager compiled a script based on their own experiences. Thus, the show is entirely subjective. The actors’ stories are decidedly personal. But each story’s words are twisted to make the audience question the teller’s authenticity and sense of reality.

“We’ve brought our own stories to the stage, but we’ve also complicated them,” Winn-Lenetsky said. “So now we have to question the reliability of the stories we’ve told.”

For theater major Lerea Carter, the show presented an opportunity to implement her own ideas. She had sat brainstorming for more than an hour yet was unable to pinpoint exactly what she wanted to say.

“We pared each story down to the bare bones,” she said, “but each story leads to another.”

First-year student and cast member James Shaff agreed.

“It’s the beginning of much bigger issues,” he said. “We barely get started.”