Review: Vineyard's Lessons in Survival Is An Expert Theatrical History Lesson

Veteran stage actors channel historic conversations with famous Black thinkers in this new series.

Joe Morton and Deirdre O'Connell in Lessons in Survival.
Joe Morton and Deirdre O'Connell in Lessons in Survival.
(© Vineyard Theatre)

The Vineyard Theatre has always been one of off-Broadway's more adventurous venues, the original home to game-changing works like Three Tall Women, How I Learned to Drive, and Avenue Q. Over the last year or so, that adventurousness has morphed into fearlessness as the nonprofit mainstay delved into the kind of experimental fare you'd see 20 blocks further downtown from their Union Square home. Tina Satter's Is This a Room was a bracing reenactment of a real-life FBI interrogation transcript. Lucas Hnath's Dana H. had star Deirdre O'Connell lip-synching to a terrifying interview with the playwright's mother in which she detailed her multiyear kidnapping at the hands of a mental patient.

With this newfound virtual theater revolution, the Vineyard has teamed up with a collective of artists called the Commissary (conceived by Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas, and Reggie D. White) to create an ongoing dramatic experiment called Lessons in Survival. Made up of eight 30-to-40-minute episodes (so far), the series tasks different actors with listening to historic conversations, interviews, and speeches through earbuds and reciting exactly what they hear verbatim. Each episode has a different theme, but the subject is generally the same: a history of the Black experience in America from the 1960s through the 2000s, utilizing the often-devastating words of artists and activists like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, among others.

Given that all but two Lessons in Survival episodes are stand-alone (an enthralling conversation between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin is presented over episodes 7 and 8), I'd recommend the pick-and-choose process if you want to test the waters. I would start with the wonderful fourth edition, The Old Leadership Is Dead, in which three fiery actors, Kyle Beltran, Yonatan Gebeyehu, and T.L. Thompson, perform Firebombs or A Freedom Budget, a 1968 speech by Bayard Rustin that explains a plan to redistribute wealth to poor Black Americans across the country. The three actors, each in a white shirt and black tie, couldn't be more different, but their impassioned delivery is pretty thrilling.

Equally exciting, for me at least, was episode 5, titled Something Is Beginning to Crack. It showcases two 1987 interviews hosted by British television presenter Mavis Nicholson, one a sort-of career retrospective with Maya Angelou, and the other with James Baldwin about a London production of his play The Amen Corner. Ireland and Deirdre O'Connell alternately embody Nicholson with a steely British reserve, while Myra Lucretia Taylor and Joe Morton bring a mesmerizing quality to their turns as Angelou and Baldwin. (Baldwin, it should be noted, is also expertly voiced in previous and subsequent episodes by Ricardy Fabray, Gebeyehu, and Beltran.)

Part acting exercise, part civics lesson, and part master classes in directing (Tyler Thomas), editing (Josiah Davis), and sound mixing (Daniel Kluger), the all-around invigorating new work is the kind of "of the moment" response to world events that theater does best and is so sorely lacking in this live-event-free world. It behooves anyone interested in the digital creation process, and more importantly, anyone who considers themselves an active citizen, to watch it.

Lessons in Survival is available on the Vineyard's website through November 29.