Dezi Solèy in ‘Participants’ at Live Oak Theater. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Dezi Solèy in ‘Participants’ at Live Oak Theater. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

TheatreFirst has commissioned 12 enlivening and exhilarating short plays by outstanding playwrights that are designed to provoke thought, discussion and action. All the pieces in Participants share the didactic theme of exploring society’s reaction to our current social and political circumstances.

The plays, in various ways, urge the spectators to take action or at least to discover a renewed awareness in societal problems. But that doesn’t subtract from Participants’ overall entertainment value, with talented and earnest writing and top quality direction. And that’s not easy to do in ten minutes. The ensemble of skilled, outstanding actors gave first-rate performances. It was easy to see that their hearts were immersed in the project and in their characters.

From a funny and ironic scene of an old and dying Donald Trump being visited by the ghost of Roy Cohen (Scenes from My Terrific Death by Dipika Guha, directed by Susannah Martin) to a thoughtful, tightly written confrontation between a sophisticated African-American female supervisor and a disgruntled white male worker who wanted her job (Eve and Steven by Carl Lumbly, directed by Josh Costello), these brief dramas capture America’s current sticking points.

Lumbly, a stage and screen actor, activist, and author of Eve and Steven, was in the audience when I attended Participants. He gave a meaningful talk about his play in which he seemed kindly sympathetic to the plight of the white male, who, in the past, expected all favors and preferences by right.

The performances about gender and race were particularly emphatic and resonant because of the winning combinations of writer, actor and director. Living Proof (by Skyler Cooper, directed by Mary Guzmán) about a transgender person’s issues was heartfelt and powerful. Take the Ticket (by Star Finch, directed by Brit Frazier) about an African-American female playwright’s quandaries in her professional and personal life, was sadly illuminating.

TheatreFirst has abandoned its theatre venue for this event. Instead, the audience of only 50 members are seated in an assortment of chairs (first come, first served) along the periphery of a smaller room, while the actors perform in the room’s center. With 12 plays being performed over two and one-half hours (including one intermission) some are more memorable than others. In fact, 12 may be a bit too many for the audience to retain clearly over a long evening, especially while sitting on hard straight chairs.

At the end of the evening, the audience is given an activist organization contact list, along with the exhortation to get involved with them in some way. Participants strikes just the right note between entertainment and education, as befits TheatreFirst’s dedication to amplifying marginalized stories and telling them through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints.

Participants can be seen at the Live Oak Theater in Live Oak Park, North Berkeley and runs through Dec. 23. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit TheatreFirst online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...