In Note to Self, a chorus of humans explores longing, discovery, warmth, desperation, hurt, patience, resilience and strength to weave together a tapestry of shared experiences across the last 75 years from different vantage points.
The new play, created and directed by Adrienne Flagg and presented with CoHo Productions, begins in the open-armed tragedies of childhood and sets into motion a stirring, fluid, well-choreographed cast. Childhood can be a time when innocence becomes tarnished by the experience of becoming an adult, and the play, developed by Flagg and the performers over many months, holds nothing back. The chorus is consistent and on the move, at one moment arching like the elegant plumes of a dark night that might destroy the last moments of sun, then breaking easily into a dignified dance toward a piercing ray of light. It’s a well-thought-out arrangement balancing the movement of a group and the force of an individual. Just as the performers’ bodies move in unison and off into singular persons, the twelve voices speak out at times with equally weighted and counterpointed words as an idea rounds out.
The dance of becoming an adolescent is tempered by the almost surreal imagination of childhood, the ideas that come from not knowing the rules of engagement, a precious place where anything and everything is embraced and possible: “I was sure someone French or Californian were my real parents.” “I got kicked out of the Bluebirds for writing a poem about a Mexican bar.”
Marty Hughley in ArtsWatch and Susannah Mars in Artslandia had in-depth discussions with director Flagg about the origins of Note to Self and the intensive workshops that built the actors around the mostly-autobiographical characters they developed from their practices. In short, two actors from different age groups wrote extensively and worked together to make a semi-fictional blend of their lives into one portrait, with the younger and older giving advice to each another about the pivotal events.
Norah Zahakarias, Mikki Lipsey, Clayton Pearce, Chris Porter, Rabbit, Tim Stapleton, Jane Fellows, Olivia Weiss, Armond Jam Frazier, Caton Lyles, Liz Hayden,and Jane Lancaster make a magical tribe, creating the closeness of a well-carved-out group who have worked hard and with attention to creating significant detail together. Actors, dancers, artists, choreographers, set designers all work together under an umbrella and bring their talents to the stage to tell the story with words, movement, song, and sometimes silence. The set is almost bare: a loose representation of red trees made by paint, tape, lights, and hardware-store supplies. The stories themselves flesh out and fill in the rest of the atmosphere.
Flagg approached and framed the project with her belief that age is an American social construct for the most part, a marketing strategy and unrealistic as a primary idea. People can come together when they have similar backgrounds, interests, dreams, or a mutual appreciation. There’s a generous amount of heartbreak to Note to Self, but the genuine care among the cast is a warm embrace by which the world-weary are given room to tell about their hurt and sorrow, being uplifted and supported in such moments of bravery by the other people onstage.
The backbone of the stories is that sorrow and joy, no matter where they spring from, are common elements by which humans can become closer. There is funny and sage advice: “Illegal sublets don’t work in your favor.” “Traffic isn’t the problem. America uses traffic as a scapegoat.” There is clarity from being broken: “I always know who I am, but my context will change. Always be aware of your context.” “When you give up a dream, and you will, you will grieve.” “I started out life as a criminal, just for being who I am.”
It’s clear that the pairs grew close while creating Note to Self, giving one another ample space to use their individual crafts to bring the stories to life. The character Malcom sings out his desires with an acoustic guitar, Dirk dances a mean shuffle/pop and lock alternating with Conga drums his fall from grace, Myra strips her social constraints in a symbolic act. George becomes a living pietà as a procession of childhood memories comes to life.
Each vignette strikes an emotional chord, as the characters grow, fail, heal, and learn. The passion for the work they’ve made together fills the air and is a clever composition of parts and situation, placed side by side, like a jigsaw puzzle. Note to Self reminds us the communal act of storytelling in person can be a sort of baptism, where we leave a little lighter and a little less of the world on our shoulders, knowing in the grand scheme of things, we’re not alone.
Note to Self continues through June 5 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.