Umbrella Project’s Sara Keats and José Samuel Clair served as dramaturgs on Seattle Public Theatre’s production of The Call, open May 17–June 9. They interviewed director Annie Lareau and assistant director Shermona Mitchell about adoption, parenthood, the process of bringing the play to life, and what resonates with them about this work.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Sara Keats: I think to a certain extent we have to fall a little bit in love with every play we work on. For everyone working on a show, and especially the artists who live with the script day in and day out, we need to fall in love with the story. What do you love about this play?
Annie Lareau: I love that this play does not shy away from fully facing and honestly exploring the hardships of infertility, the complexities of adopting internationally, and what that means on a global level. [The playwright] Tanya Barfield allows us to see this one act through so many lens and doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
José Samuel Clair: Yeah, this play covers a lot of topics and points of view in a fairly compact dinner party drama. The play itself doesn’t have a particular agenda other than to explore all these tough topics honestly, and respectfully.
Shermona Mitchell: If the play takes any position, it’s that family is made. That’s a theme that feels really true to me, and really important to see on our stages. I also love that Drea and Rebecca can exist in this play — Ayo [who plays Drea to Mitchell’s Rebecca] and I have often spoken with each other about how refreshing it is to play a black lesbian couple in play that isn’t about the hardship and trauma of being a black lesbian couple. It’s just a fact of the world of this play, just like it’s a fact of real world.
JSC: For sure, I’ve always felt like the play is more or less realism — from the way the characters talk over each other and don’t always complete thoughts —
“If the play takes any position, it’s that family is made.”
SK: — that’s a thing, my best friend is a linguist and did her thesis comparing real conversations between friends to various seasons of the TV show Friends. She basically found that the main signifier of comfort and intimacy when people are talking to each other is implying meaning without [finishing sentences]
JSC: — yeah, there is realism at the dialogue level, and also more or less around the various plotlines of the play. Where do you all see your truth in this play?
AL: Part of the reason I was so drawn to this play is that central subject matter hits close to home. I struggled with infertility for a long time myself and was halfway through the process of adopting a baby from Nepal when a miracle happened and I got pregnant on my own. Looking back at my own experience, I can see now how unaware I was the complexity of the choice to adopt internationally and cross-culturally. I was so focused on my deep desire to be a mom that I didn’t stop to ask myself the hard questions that Drea, Rebecca and Alemu ask of this white couple.
SM: I’m a Black American and when I first read the script, I found myself asking the same questions that Drea and Rebecca bring up with Annie and Peter — they’re real questions and real concerns.
SK: The play does such a great job interrogating Annie and Peter’s decision while still being incredibly sympathetic to their deep desire to be parents.
AL: And so sympathetic to how hard it is when you can’t [get pregnant]. I’ve been in this couple’s shoes and it’s an exhausting, expensive, and trying place to be. This play doesn’t shy away from the pain and the deterioration between couples that can be caused by years of trying to become a parent, and how that hardship can impact close friends.
“This play doesn’t shy away from the pain and the deterioration between couples that can be caused by years of trying to become a parent, and how that hardship can impact close friends.”
SK: That’s fascinating that you have such a personal connection to the play. Do you see yourself or your community in this play?
AL: Absolutely. Tanya writes so clearly about the community of adoptive parents and what they face at all the junctures, with both compassion and criticism because she went through the process herself. There is a massive, relatively unknown community of blogs and internet support groups who grapple with these issues everyday. Then she illuminates the racial politics of international adoption, deep suffering of those who have been orphaned by the AIDs epidemic globally and the inherent racial bias of white America and how that plays out in this scenario.
SM: For sure, for sure. I guess for me…Well, I think Drea and Alemu are the characters who have the words of the community throughout this story. Alemu in particular, “…You want a child from Africa, but you do not want Africa.” This really resonates with me. “…but you don’t want Africa.” For me this is so true. “You like the idea of me, not me” I see it in many different areas of my life—theater included.
JSC: That’s one of those lines that really stays with you and makes you think about both our conscious and unconscious biases, particularly regarding a central Afro-pessimist viewpoint that many Americans, in particular, harbor. As the director and assistant director, what do you hope people leave this play thinking about?
AL: I hope it makes people both understand the journey of those that have gone through this process to become parents, the responsibility and complexities of adopting cross culturally, and in the end how powerful adoption can be for those children throughout their lives.
SM: There are so many things to talk about — pick a topic! I’ll be stoked if they are still ruminating on the show throughout the week.
SK: Absolutely fair. I guess the goal of theater is to help shape how people view the world around them and to leave each performance as a more empathetic person, so any topic they take away is valid. And this is a really interesting choice of a play to produce. When did you first encounter the The Call?
AL: A friend of mine told me about the play after playing the role of Annie in another state. The moment she started talking I knew I needed to read it. I had never read a play that spoke so closely to my story of wanting to be a mom and struggling so hard to become one, if the questions that should, but aren’t always asked, when one embarks on adoption and ultimately what we mean when we talk about wanting to be a parent.
SM: Annie first brought it to me. It grabbed me, of course! I have no experience with the adoption process and listening to Annie’s journey throughout the play is so heartbreaking.
JSC: That personal connection to a piece of work is so important. Tanya has said in interviews that she always ends up writing the plays for herself and never thinks anyone else will enjoy them, but the topics she covers and the way she writes are so universal and topical for so many. Has your reading of the play evolved since you first read it?
AL: The more we work on this play, the more the different voices and perspectives come to the forefront for me. Though I was initially drawn to the piece because of my own experience wanting to be a mom, I can feel the father’s experience more keenly, the immigrants experience of trying to save others in his home country whom he could not bring with him, and those of Rebecca and Drea who see and experience racism every day in America and know more keenly than anyone what it means to be Black and American.
SM: You can say that again! I guess for me, every time I go through this play, it becomes more and more complex.
SK: As it should.
SM: Absolutely as it should! My empathy falls with every character’s experience. I think Peter’s story is a voice we as a society don’t often get a chance to hear — yeah, he’s a cis white guy, but it’s a point of view on wanting fatherhood that we don’t often hear.
SK: Why are you excited to have this play at Seattle Public Theatre?
SM: I’m really excited to be able to flex both my acting abilities and also gain greater knowledge as a director. It’s been a wonderful experience and I’m glad that Annie wanted to make sure she had a Black Woman to aid in telling this story.
AL: And I’ve loved having you help tell this story. You know, I really love the realness that this cast brings to this play. They are putting themselves out there, stretching and ultimately finding themselves in Tanya’s words. I love that Seattle Public Theater can bring a piece that sparks the conversation around adoption and what being a parent means and ultimately asks us all to think about what that really means beyond baby clothes and infants.
JSC: That’s so great. Annie, what do you remember about the rehearsal process and what really stood out for you once you got the play on its feet?
AL: Each time we run this play, more nooks and crannies are illuminated. There is so much depth to this work. I mean, each time we would rehearse a scene, we would see the humanity in Tanya’s writing surface, which really helped the actors find their way into the world more fully. Each character has their own story, their own path and we are allowed to be part of each one. Unravelling all of these stories and the intricacies of their relationships is what has really stayed with me as we moved from the page to the stage.
“The world is such a vast place, there are so many stories we haven’t heard yet. Leaving space for those voices is always needed. Shermona Mitchell, assistant director and actor in The Call“
SK: I love that. Finding those moments, those details to the story is so exciting. How about you Shermona?
SM: After doing full runs, we were mentally and emotionally exhausted…all of us. That sort of investment and commitment to Tanya’s work, was inspiring. To go to the dark places and know you would get caught by your cast was strengthened with each run. And I think working on a newer play, one with a story we haven’t really heard before has been a treasure for my life as an actor and director. The world is such a vast place, there are so many stories we haven’t heard yet. Leaving space for those voices is always needed.
AL: Stories like these, that deal with this subject matter, with this multifaceted view point are rare. This play has really given us a chance to break down your typical group of friends and neighbors and see the aspects of race, adoption and parenthood with a new perspective.