TEACHABLE MOMENT: From left, Danielle James and Vanessa M. Watson in Gidion’s Knot.
April 9-19, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., and 3 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
University of South Florida, Theatre 2, 3837 W. Holly Drive, Tampa; 813-974-2323
$15 general admission; $10 students, seniors, active military.
After several successful productions around the U.S., Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot is finally coming to Tampa. It’ll play for two weekends at USF’s Theatre 2, directed by the formidable Fanni Green. And if critics from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., are to be trusted, this is an event that local theatergoers should welcome.
I sat down with Green (associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, widely respected actor and director) in a conference room at USF to discuss the play and its importance. She told me that Gidion’s Knot (first staged in 2009) features a fifth grade teacher and a mother on a single set representing a classroom. Some days before the play opens, the mother’s son wrote a “very graphic and violent essay” that resulted in his suspension, and shortly afterward, the boy shot himself in the head. Now his bereaved, angry mother arrives to keep a parent-teacher conference — “nobody expected her to keep the appointment” — and for 80 or so minutes, she and the teacher discuss “everything that they didn’t know about the kid.” There’s much to discover, not least the fact that the mother thought the boy’s ferocious essay “the most beautiful thing that’s ever been written.” And there’s more: The two women exchange often-surprising thoughts on “suicide, bullying, sexual identity, the educational system, and who’s the better parent.” By the time the play ends, we’ve been witnesses to a deeply felt discussion about an unpredictable world.
Why did Green choose Gidion’s Knot for production? First, she said, was her desire to follow several large-cast productions at USF with something on a smaller scale. But beyond that, there was the all-too-relevant subject of student suicide. The topic was on her mind because of all the information she has received about warning signs, and about suicide being very prevalent between 18-to-25-year-olds.
“But it was the first time that I thought about, oh my gosh, elementary school!” Green countered. “It’s filtering down.”
Along with its crucial subject matter, Green thought the play would offer a great opportunity to showcase two female leads.
“Of course, it gave me the opportunity to double-cast again, because I like to do that,” she effused.
Gidion’s Knot will be acted by two teams alternating at different performances — Selena Frye and Amanda Zappia on one team, Danielle James and Vanessa Watson on the other.
Green has also organized pre-show entertainment that explores issues discussed in the play. Following her usual wish to find “a community engagement element” in plays that she directs, she contacted some middle school teachers, asked them to read Gidion’s Knot and then provide prompts for students to write essays, poems, and stories about bullying and suicide. Two performers who are not in the play, a male and a female, will read the writings that the students submitted.
Further, Green worked with a dance professor at USF who had created two 10-minute PSA dance videos about bullying and suicide; these will be shown in the theater lobby before the show.
“The real fact is, when we send our kids out of the door, if anybody spends eight hours with your kid, they spend more time with your kid than you do,” said Green. “And so there are things that they know about your kid that you possibly don’t know. And there are things that teachers figure, based on a kid’s behavior, that lead them to make assumptions about home. And I think all of that is quite interesting.”
But there’s another reason adults might find Gidion’s Knot relevant (Green judges that ninth-graders and older might also benefit): “I think this allows us to open the door to talk about what we mean when we say ‘freedom of speech,’ and how we have to own what comes out of our mouth,” she told me. Also, a key concept in the play is how the deceased student “self-identified” — sexually, at least — and this is a burning question in a contemporary society where “we get to say who we are.”
In fact, Green said, the strength of the play is that, even with its “microscopic” details, it allows us to extrapolate to other issues that might be roiling in any one of us.
A warning: Gidion’s Knot contains profanity and graphic descriptions of violence. It’s not for young children.
But if Green is right, it may “open the door for continued conversation.”