- How To Catch Creation by Christina Anderson
In addition to forcing most performing arts institutions around the globe to go dark for an interval previously unimaginable, the COVID crisis also challenged many of them to think expansively about ways to keep audiences engaged. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre responded to the predicament of mandated social and physical distancing by launching a streaming series called “Encore,” which aimed to grant audiences opportunities to experience several of the company’s recent productions from the comfort of their homes. Free and available on-demand, the series presented a diverse range of projects, including Goodman artistic director Robert Falls’s 2013 staging of Measure for Measure and the company’s 2014 production of Noah Haidle’s Smokefall, directed by Anne Kauffman. Perhaps most excitingly, it also featured the 2019 production of Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation, a sweeping contemporary drama that offers rich meditations on the complexities of life, art, creativity, inspiration, and legacy. While such themes would no doubt captivate audiences during ordinary times, they took on even greater urgency during our long season of sequestering, inviting viewers to wrestle and reckon with the conversations the play activates about the inconstancy of the spark of creation.
Filmed to approximate the live theatregoing experience as best as possible, the Encore presentation provided a closer look at some of the ways the Goodman’s production brought necessary coherence to the many temporal and tonal shifts that animate Anderson’s dramaturgy. Anderson’s script toggles between the Obama years and the 1960s (with brief stops in the 1980s) to weave together the story-lines of six Black artists and thinkers living in and around a place reminiscent of San Francisco. Griffin and Tami are forty-something urbanites whose friendship has endured his wrongful conviction and twenty-five-year stint in prison, as well as her periodic bouts of insecurity about her artistic and pedagogical work. Their worlds interestingly and unexpectedly collide with a young couple in their late twenties, Stokes and Riley, who count painting, writing, graphic design, and computer programming as passions between them. A shared love for the work of Black feminist, lesbian writer G. K. Marche is what initially connects Griffin and Stokes and, later, Tami and Riley. While the fictional Marche was purportedly prolific and beloved during the height of civil rights and Black Power activism, her work has mostly fallen out of favor by the time Stokes happens upon a collection of it at a street sale. Notably sustaining Marche during her peak in the 1960s was an intense romance with a seam-stress named Natalie who, it turns out, is Griffin’s late mother. Although such confluences might read too dramaturgically convenient, Anderson finds clever and compelling ways to avoid trafficking in clichés. Indeed, when Tami and Riley begin having an affair, their feelings for each other seem as much of a surprise to them as they are to us. Anderson’s poetic dialogue and measured plotting invite her characters and audiences to remain present to all the discoveries she threads throughout her script.
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Anderson was powerfully aided in this effort at the Goodman by the skillful direction of Niegel Smith and a dynamic cast that included both company veterans—Karen Aldridge (Tami), Jasmine Bracey (Natalie), Bernard Gilbert (Stokes), and Keith Randolph Smith (Griffin)—and newcomers to its stages—Ayanna Bria Bakari (Natalie) and Maya Vinice Prentiss (Riley). Aldridge and Smith’s chemistry was especially palpable onscreen. The tender relationship they crafted for Griffin and Tami provided a vital anchor throughout the show, bringing necessary seriousness and levity to the play’s many twists and turns. An expert interpreter of August Wilson’s plays, Smith proved particularly adept at finding and mining the grace notes in Anderson’s evocative language. He brought a contemplativeness [End Page 555] and optimism to Griffin that belied the bitterness one might expect the character to...