The St. Olaf theater department is opening their fall play, “Cloud 9,” this weekend. The Caryl Churchill play is known for its unconventional use of cross-gender, -race and -age casting. Although it was first performed in 1979, the director, William Sonnega, described the play as “more contemporary than ever” given the last decade’s expansion of public discourse about the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
The first act is set in 1880 British colonial Africa and sets up a caricature of a typical white family living in the far reaches of the British empire. However, the casting is far from typical. The playwright, Churchill, is adamant that any production of the play follows her casting scheme.
“Betty, a woman, is played by a man, and Joshua, a black person, is played by a white,” Sonnnega explains in his program notes. “Given Clive’s toxic masculinity and his fragile whiteness, Betty and Joshua are simply too threatening for him to see otherwise; they must become, as Betty says, ‘what he wants’ them to be.”
When asked in an interview how the production was approaching the delicate and potentially problematic nature of a white actor playing a black character, Sonnega said, “the character as written is a brutal critique of the way forces of colonization don’t just take over territories, instead Churchill says the end game of colonization is to take over bodies.”
Additionally, Sonnega emphasized the student actors’ “commitment to doing the work with the highest degree of honesty and integrity” and the role research played in efforts to portray individual thoughts and feelings rather than stereotypes.
Things get shaken up again in act two. Now, 100 years later in 1979 London, all of the characters have aged only 25 years and are played by different actors in the cast. The program notes describe how “influenced by the French playwright Jean Genet’s notion that colonial oppression is the result of sexual repression, Churchill explores a range of possibilities for new and more compassionate relationships in the post-colonial world.”
During an interview, Sonngea said, “the world of act two is far from perfect, but it shows that, and I know this sounds like a Hallmark card, but it really is in the power of love and small acts of kindness that we see hope for change, and these are our best responses to the injustices of the world.”
Sonnega reached out to resources on and off campus to assist the production in navigating the challenging material of the play. Doug Scholz-Carlson, Artistic Director and Intimacy Choreographer for the Great River Shakespeare Festival, directed moments in the play involving physical intimacy – and there are a lot of them. Approaching staged intimacy with the same respect and precaution as elements like stage combat is a growing trend in the theater scene.
Members of the production team also met with St. Olaf administrators, including Bruce King, Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity; María Pabón Gautier, Director of the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion; and Jon Mergens, Assistant Director for Gender and Sexuality.
“Cloud 9” runs Nov. 15, 16 and 21-23 at 7:30 p.m., as well as Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets are free for students, faculty and staff and can be reserved at stolaf.edu/apps/tickets or by calling (507) 786-3332.