Photo by Bill Brymer.
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield
by Jeff Augustin, Sarah DeLappe, Claire Kiechel and Ramiz Monsef
Directed by Eric Hoff
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
If you are at all familiar with Murray, Kentucky and Murray State University, you may have noticed that there is some reverence given to the late Nathan Stubblefield. Who was Nathan Stubblefield? That is part of the plot of this episodic play written and performed by the Acting Apprentices of the 2016-2017 Actors Theatre Professional Training Company.
The play begins with Kevin Kantor as a WHAS Radio personality announcing the 1928 death of Nathan Stubblefield. Soon the whole of the ensemble come out, one by one, male and female, all proclaiming that each is Nathan Stubblefield. With a quick-as-lighting change, Labor to Be Heard, starts with a person wearing a primitive-looking headpiece reminiscent of a gas mask. As the figure walks about, actor Andrew Cutler begins the story of coal miners who were stuck underground, and of the man who allegedly came up with the apparatus that would change rescues and safety far into the future: the safety hood. But who really invented it and helped to rescue those miners? Was it Carter Caldwell’s White Garrett, who is flanked by reporters eager to hear of his heroics? or was it Elijah Jones’ Garrett who with he and his Bavarian wife Mary (Anna Lentz) was always fearful of a lynching or even death? Perhaps history will provide that answer.
Henriettas features four elderly ladies creeping onto the stage with their walkers and forming a circle. One by one they shout “Henrietta” 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then tell of their contributions to modern technology. Unfortunately, due to bad acoustics and temperamental microphones, I could not decipher what those inventions were, save one of them being a piece used on a war machine. The quartet was entertaining with sass and dance.
The microphone issue was problematic throughout the evening.
The fourth installment, Thomas Edison Tries to Write a Play, was like watching the development and implementation of a movie within a play. Film student Sam Kotansky is given the idea of making a film about Thomas Edison’s time in Louisville by Abby Huffstetler’s dancing illuminated light bulb. Through the course of this “film” we see sidebars from scientists (Kevin Kantor, Jenn Geiger) who share a few of Edison’s successes and failures. Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Trabolsi’s Telegraph Operator’s Daughter serves as narrator to the film and hints at Edison’s sexual appetite. The trio of Trabolsi, Daniel Johnson’s Edison and Jacob Sabinsky’s Robert are entertaining.
Final Four brought Olivia (Alexandra Milak), a time traveling hunter, and four versions of Nathan Stubblefield: Original Nathan (Carter Caldwell), Mutant Nathan (Andrew Cutler), Barbarian Nathan (Jacob Sabinsky), and Hipster Nathan (Andres Chaves) into present time so that she can kill them all and prevent the creation of a device that we all use today. I am not going to divulge what that device is. Despite some funny aspects and the social commentary associated with it, I felt the piece was flat. A mutant Nathan?
Ramiz Monsef’s vignette Batson had some teeth. Based upon the criminal case against James Batson (Elijah Jones), whose attorney, David Niehaus (Andrew Cutler), successfully argues his case before the United States Supreme Court, resulting in Batson Challenge Law, which prevents challenging the selection of jurors based on race. The use of a game of chess was a clever analogy to Mr. Baston’s case, and this piece was full of energy and proof of resilience. Again, because of the microphone issue, it was hard to hear Mr. Jones’ rap.
Sarah DeLappe’s I Will Survive was a fun little piece. Set in the Louisville Mirrored Disco Ball factory, a worker in roller skates, Yolanda (Alice Wu), takes us on a tour that shows the beginnings, heyday, and death of Disco. Strewn throughout the scene are music breaks where her co-workers bring out more mirrored balls and begin to dance and skate around the Bingham Theater. The reason for this vignette doesn’t make a lot of sense in the overall theme of the evening, save for the Louisville ties, but more than a few times I wanted to get up and boogie with them all
Claire Kiechel’s The Ballad of Nathan Stubblefield gives the audience a little more information about the life and importance of Mr. Stubblefield, delivered in a clever way by a balladeer (Daniel Johnson). With the ensemble acting as a Greek chorus, if you will, we learn of the important discoveries that Nathan made and influenced today’s technology. I will say that the ending is unexpected.
House Josephine, Josephine Baker, by Jeff Augustin, seemed a bit more out of place than some of the other material. Ana May Cake (Laakan McHardy) and C (Andres Chaves) await their presumptive head of the club Lady Day (Kathiamarice Lopez) to begin rehearsals/performances. Upon learning that the usual girl is unavailable, C steps in, though with some trepidation. What we see is a transformation of C’s confidence and some fly dance moves.
In Claire Kiechel’s tina, gena & may, Tina (Kelsey Johnson), Gena (Regan Moro) and May (Anne-Marie Trabolsi) get together in the dark of night in the middle of the woods and hold what resembles a séance or witching circle to rouse the spirit of Henrietta to talk and guide them. While I understand the correlation to the vignette Henriettas, I saw little else to the whole of the play.
The last play, Jeff Augustin’s The Death of Kween Nathan Stubblefield, also felt less than satisfying. As Kween Stubblefield, Laaken McHardy was bold and confident in her poise and delivery, despite sound issues. Unfortunately, the text, while explaining the Henriettas and providing a smidge of info regarding Nathan, felt unresolved.
All in all, the ensemble and playwrights did an admirable job, and there was smart use of the theatre-in-the-round Bingham space, with adaptable floor and trap doors. A tip of the hat as well to costumes and props, especially the unusual representation of one of Nathan’s inventions.
So, who is Nathan Stubblefield? Come to Actors Theatre and find out.
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield
March 24 – April 9, 2017
Part of the 41st Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.