“For exactly half his life, my brother has been in prison and in December he’ll be up for parole. My name is Gabriel Jason Dean. I’m a playwright and this is a mostly true story about my brother and me.”
Those are the final words uttered by the playwright behind #RIFT in the first audio file provided by Luna Stage. The work is presented in three stages – and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Blending text message conversations, audio files, and images with audience participation and ultimately an in-person theatrical performance, #RIFT is directed by Luna’s artistic director Ari Laura Kreith with Natashia Lindsey as dramaturg. People may sign up online to be part of the audience until April 23rd.
The story is a work of fiction based on the playwright’s own experiences with his half-brother, who was sentenced to life plus 40 years for a litany of charges that included murder and armed robbery. The sentencing took place four days before his brother’s 21st birthday.
Dean’s brother is a currently-incarcerated member of the alt-right, and the two had barely spoken in 10 years. In creating the piece, Dean reconnected with his brother to explore the roots of their ideological differences and see if there was any way to find common ground, and to try to understand what love means in this context.
“This is a story I’ve been trying to tell for 20 years, since my brother got sentenced in 2000,” explained Gabriel Jason Dean, who grew up Chatsworth, GA, a mill town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and now lives in Brooklyn. “I tried this first as a straight play when I was a young writer, cutting my teeth in Atlanta. It was not good! And then I picked it up again in graduate school, tried it there and it was a little better. Then I tried it as a movie because it felt very visual to me, but those stories weren’t working.
“What I realized though conversations with other collaborators and with Ari Laura Kreith was that those stories weren’t working because I wasn’t telling the truth. I was taking the dynamic of my brother and I and putting it into another narrative and it wasn’t what I needed to do.”
The big revelatory moment for the playwright was when he decided to put a character named Gabriel in the play. While he’s written works that were personal in nature, he’s never put himself as a character on stage.
“That shift was big,” noted Dean. “It’s not just about being honest with the story, it’s about being honest with myself. That also means there are moments in this where I really have to own my own flaws and mistakes. It’s not been easy and now I get to share it with everyone!”
The pandemic forced theatres to look beyond the stage and enter the homes of audiences via plays done across online platforms like ZOOM. With #RIFT, Luna Stage moves beyond the screen itself.
“I feel the pandemic has given us the opportunity to do this via the text messages in a way that people by now are used to,” continued Dean. “They have to engage with theatre in a different way, but I feel like the form is integral to the piece. It needs to be done this way and part of that is because it makes me tell the truth…
“With that, I’ll say it is still a work of fiction at the end of the day. There are things I’ve had to invent both to help the narrative but also to protect some of the real people who are in this piece.”
The play is divided into three parts. It begins by having the audience experience the conversations between Gabriel and his brother via text messages delivered to their phones over the course of two months. It tells the story of the two from the moment of the incarceration to roughly 2018.
The use of multimedia helps place you in the setting. In the first audio file, Gabriel recalls the moment when he was a freshman in Creative Writing class and a detective from his hometown calls him while he was in class. After returning the call, he learned his brother was in serious trouble and Gabriel himself might be a suspect.
“It’s interesting, because when I say it’s a play over text messages, I think people assume that they’re going to be eavesdropping on a text thread of two voices,” said Ari Laura Kreith. “And it’s so much more intricate and multi-faceted than that, in the sense that there are images, hand-written experiences that feel like artifacts; there’s audio and musical elements as well. It’s really like a whole experience that’s coming out of people’s phones. It’s kind of magical to be able to land in people’s day to day lives in this way.”
The second part, which launches later in the spring, invites audience members to be as adventurous as they choose to be in exploring how they might bridge similar rifts in their own lives and experiences. They are encouraged to reach across divides that seem unbridgeable in their own lives. Luna Stage hopes people will share their experiences with them, which can be incorporated within the final stage.
The third part picks up from where it left off in 2018 and becomes the present time from when Gabriel reached out to his brother, the two spoke for the first time in a decade, and all that’s happened since. It interweaves Gabriel’s personal story with elements of the experiences shared by the audience members.
The piece culminates with a live performance inside the Luna Stage theatre in the fall. And since people from around the country are following the story, the theatre will likely work on having a virtual version available as well, for those who cannot make it to the West Orange theatre.
Both Kreith and Dean are excited at how this play moves theatre beyond the stage, essentially creating its own genre.
“We’re sort of inventing this,” said Dean. “I think of it as a fusion restaurant. It’s sort of combining different literary forms — there’s the episode-like style of this with letters; there’s the character of the dramaturg; and there’s a podcast-like feel when I’m doing voiceovers.
“I’m continuing to think of this as scenes and live theatre, but it’s taking it to a virtual place. To me, that’s exciting. This is theatre in the ether. It’s happening above our heads and that’s cool.”
Kreith believes #RIFT will appeal to the traditional theatre-goers who miss theatre, but sees it opening the door to others as well.
“I think there are people who, for many reasons, don’t feel like they want to come into a space and take the risk to have these conversations,” explained Kreith. “So this is creating a safe space where you can have this experience in the privacy of your own home on your phone and choose your relationship to it. I think there’s something about having time for reflection, because I feel like you can have an experience in the theatre where you think, ‘I will never be the same person again.’ And I think when you have an experience over eight weeks, the question becomes, ‘Who am I really?’”
“I wouldn’t do theatre if I didn’t think that it has the potential to change a life,” said Dean. “It certainly changed mine. It saved my life many times over. So my hope is that people who may have some version of a rift in their lives can use it as an opportunity to at least start a conversation in which both parties are listening.”
** Note: Luna Stage warns that the play deals with mature themes including violence, sexual abuse, and racism. It is intended for audiences over 16. **