We Wear The Mask
The absence of live performance can be felt in every corner of New York City. It’s hard to picture how we once packed into theaters, gripping programs and chatting with strangers in neighboring seats, giddy from the anticipation of an opening night. The Grace Theatre Company presented its fall production, “We Wear The Mask,” on November 18–20, 2020, over Zoom. Artistic communities have found extraordinary ways to reimagine the theatrical experience, and drama teacher Sabrina Jacob Washburn, who wrote and directed the virtual performance, knew that this year called for a new realm of creativity. After attending a playwriting class at La Mama Experimental Theater Company this summer through Grace’s professional development program, Ms. Washburn wrote this production specifically for Zoom. Each of the five mini-plays, Camp Longview, Baby Reborn, Runneth Over, Paint’N Sip, and The Red Sweatshirt, takes place as a video call set in the time of the pandemic.
When asked about the concept for this year’s production, Ms. Washburn explained how Maya Angelou’s spoken word performance of “The Mask” was at its center. “I was moved by this idea that people wear masks in this metaphorical sense just to get through the day.” She added, “Right now, we are wearing masks to survive, but there are also groups of people, particularly Black people, who have had to put on this ‘mask’ just to survive throughout history… they hide parts of themselves.” In Ms. Washburn’s eyes, the mask represents more than a public health crisis—it symbolizes the concept of layered identities, and the eruption of antiracist movements across the United States.
The play opens with a recitation of “The Mask”, revealing several performers in layered images on the screen, moving through a series of intricate gestures. They shift between laughing, staring into the camera, and rubbing their faces. One performer turns in an empty field and sharply throws their torso forward.
We hear the familiarity of facetime rings and text chimes. Zoom squares pop up one at a time, and five separate stories unfold. Camp friends reunite, babies cry, makeup tutorials ensue… the five plays offer a dynamic range in tone—some are dark, some are comedic—but the conversations between characters are always honest, and anchored by the idea of their hidden identities, or “masks.”
The Grace Theatre Company rehearsed three times a week for two hours at a time, and given the cancellation of sports this fall and the flexibility of rehearsing over Zoom, the production was able to welcome many first-time performers. Theater is rooted in the art of timing and in the physical embodiment of a character’s lines. Now, with the normalization of remote learning, and in this case, remote rehearsing, this physicality seems like a luxury. You would think that these new modes of performance might have dulled the magic of theater, but it was quite the opposite. In “We Wear the Mask,” Grace students invited audiences into an intimate space—the experience was more personal. Watching the characters navigate these relationships via video calls was endearing and very human.
In a year of uncertainty, the Grace Theatre Company came together this fall with high spirits. This production highlights the full breadth of talent at Grace—beyond the acting, there is dance, song, spoken word and even original music by Grace music teacher, Andrew Leonard.
Ms. Washburn sees her students as collaborators in the process of developing their characters. She knew that despite the challenges of rehearsing remotely, she wanted to give her students opportunities to grow. She spoke to the bond of the group: “We’re a little bit of a family, and the people matter more than the work sometimes.” Making art during a global pandemic can bring a sense of comfort and normalcy to those creating the work as well as to their audience. The artistic process offered relief, but also gave students the space to think critically about the privileges and injustices that define every aspect of their world. In “We Wear The Mask,” these discoveries play out in real time.
This year, the Christmas Pageant, written by long-time teacher and children’s playwright, Aurand Harris, was performed by another generation of Grace eighth graders. Though the Grace community couldn’t gather in the Church for a live performance, the full production was filmed and shared with all. The production was directed by Susan Sterman-Jones with music direction by Elizabeth Abrams.
High School Winter Concert
Grace families enjoyed a virtual rendition of the High School Winter Concert this year–a treat for both art lovers and those looking to avoid a cold commute. Each year, the Winter Concert provides a stage for performing arts students to showcase a semester of hard work and creativity. To read about how this performance came together, visit the Teaching and Learning blog for a post co-written by several of the High School Performing Arts teachers.