The revolution begins. Dark at first, then followed by the sound of a piano. A soliloquy is delivered and a quiet voice jokes, “Every now and then a country goes wrong.”
This is the prologue to “WOKE!: A Revolutionary Cabaret,” an original production by Long Beach’s California Repertory Company which received a standing ovation at its opening Friday night at the Theater Arts building.
The play is part one in the company’s four-year Devising Democracy initiative, which addresses the most urgent issues of contemporary American society through the art of theater and presses both actors and audiences to acknowledge their own ability to create change.
With a diverse ensemble of nearly 24 actors, “WOKE!” is a deeply socio-political piece. Actress Alexandra Billings, best known for her role as Davina in Amazon’s “Transparent,” and actor Jonathan Talberg, director of choral, vocal and opera studies at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music, also joined the ensemble cast of 22 students. The play criticizes the policies of the Trump administration and the divisive responses from the American public to everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August this year.
Contrary to the other plays performed this fall, such as “Machinal” and “Alice’s Wonderland,” “WOKE!” possesses no narrative arc. There are no characters to follow and no clear resolution at the end of the performance. Instead, there are genuine people — each with their own story to tell, though the narratives they weave may or may not be their own.
Tales of experiences with addiction, sexual assault, hate speech, white male privilege and racism took center stage, accompanied by the cast’s performances of hits such as “Piece by Piece” by Kelly Clarkson and “Creep” by Radiohead. Selections were also taken from musicals such as “In the Heights”, “Wicked” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” which recently won several Tony awards.
Directed by Joanne Gordon, who retires this semester after over 36 years spent in the university’s service, and choreographed by Brian Moe, the play directly addresses the helplessness felt by political activists after setbacks by administration and the isolation felt by those who don’t fit into the American narrative, particularly the immigrant and LGBTQIA communities.
The two-hour-long show, thankfully, did have several reprieves from the heavy subject matter by way of an occasional joke. A surprise appearance from tap-dancing Donald Trump, moving to “You’ll Be Back” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” was well-received with laughter and applause from the audience.
“WOKE!” does not allow its humor to be written off as just jokes. The humor is present, but it consistently returns the audience’s attention to the serious nature of its topics. The dancing Trump, for example, criticizes how people use humor to apathetically distance themselves from the reality that the country is in.
The real show-stopper of the night came in the all-female performance of “Woman” by Ke$ha, where actresses rallied together to reclaim their bodies through singing and hip-hop dancing. Though some did not fully lean into the body rolls and hesitated on the arguably “sexier” moves, the vocals of the cast and consistency in timing more than made up for it.
The vocalists who performed Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” also delivered strong performances which were driven home by the haunting choice to have the stage’s iron bars swing, reminiscent of the lynchings that Holiday sang of in the late 1930s. The emotional performances of Billings and Talberg during their own monologues and duet also stuck with audiences to the very end.
“WOKE!” offers no direction for its audience on how to resolve the issues embroiled in recent years. It provides no happy ending and instead reminds the audience that these issues, these struggles, these people are not isolated. Yet, its message of community and resilience of the American people reminds its viewers of one thing that cannot be taken from them: hope.
“WOKE!: A Revolutionary Cabaret” will be playing through Nov. 12 at the Theater Arts building with shows at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. A special Thursday performance begins at 7 p.m. with an “inside look” with Gordon, starting at 6 p.m. Shows are also on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets for students and faculty are $15 while tickets for the general public are $20. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.