- playing at Kennedy Center (Washington, DC)
- dates: now through November 27, 2016
- directed by Colin Hovde
- written by Finegan Kruckemeyer
- Roar Score: 5/5
We’ve long been fans of “children’s theater,” which is really an unfortunate and unfair category since so many shows that fall under this umbrella are truly phenomenal plays that deserve a wider audience than just children or families with young kids. One of the benefits of living in the DC region is that there’s no shortage of wonderful plays and theaters targeting young audiences.
And the Kennedy Center certainly never fails to deliver. Case in point: the latest production in their Theater for Young Audiences series (which also happens to be a world-premiere Kennedy Center commission), Where Words Once Were.
The show conjures an overcrowded, dystopian city that houses what is presumably the last of humanity after the sea levels rise and cover the world in water. The City, ruled by an authoritarian government straight out of 1984 or Brave New World, has learned to weaponize language.
Only 1,000 words are allowed. The rest have been “erased.” People must communicate using only a combination of these 1,000 permitted words. And when a new word enters the Language, an old one must be erased. No one is able to say exactly what they feel, and since pens are strictly regulated and not allowed in private possession, writing is essentially outlawed.
When people break the laws and face the most severe form of punishment, they are silenced. All of their words are taken away. And by existing in a world of silence, unable to voice their most basic thoughts or feelings, they slowly fade away and eventually disappear. Literally.
Words are weapons. Thoughts are governed. And the City controls the population by limiting the vocabulary necessary to form new thoughts or ideas.
Heady stuff for a children’s play, right?
When young Orhan finds a message scrawled on the wall outside his mother’s bakery, he’s taken aback. Not only is the message (and the writing implement) illegal, it also contains an erased word. But if the word is there, and he can read it, and he understands the word’s meaning in his mind, how can it truly be “erased”?
And by opening his mind and questioning the limits of the City’s power – for can they really control the words he says inside his head? – he slowly becomes aware of a girl, one of the erased, who sweeps the street outside the bakery.
By thinking the impossible and seeing the invisible, Orhan uncovers a truth more powerful than the City: the 26 letters they still have in the Language are enough to tell every story in existence and give voice to every idea that’s ever been thought. Truly, ink is a true sword.
Aside from the obvious political overtones and frightening relevance to recent and current events, the play also celebrates wordplay. Anagrams, palindromes, and alliteration all have critical roles in the script. Anagrams, specifically, are integral to the story. Words appear and dance across the stage, bringing the Language to life in ways the characters cannot.
Ironically, the single set and five actors are enough to bring the City and its strange rules to life. Chris Lane is fantastic as Orhan, the boy trapped by circumstances and who unwittingly finds himself at the center of a revolution. And Alina Collins Maldonado shines as the silenced girl who also acts as narrator and guide for the audience. Your heart will break for her as the City slowly wakes up, stops ignoring her, and remembers she exists.
The play is recommended for kids age 9+, and that seems about right. My daughter is 7 and thoroughly enjoyed the show, but many of the themes and subtler messages escaped her. We sat outside the theater for a while after the show talking about and dissecting the story and characters.
Where Words Once Were isn’t just great children’s theater – it’s great theater. And like all great art, it raises important questions and asks us to think. Question your limits and the status quo. If you ask me, a healthy dose of skepticism and rebellion is always necessary…particularly among kids and especially now.
The show is currently playing at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater through November 27, 2016. Tickets are on sale here and selling out fast.