PURE Theatre embraces virtual offerings with the pandemic still in full swing 

A New Type of Medium

click to enlarge PURE Theatre's "Bearing Witness" series examines themes of systemic racism that have become part of the national narrative in recent months

David Mandel

PURE Theatre's "Bearing Witness" series examines themes of systemic racism that have become part of the national narrative in recent months

PURE Theatre may not be able to hold full-scale productions at the moment due to COVID-19, but that's not stopping the local company from delivering quality entertainment to Charleston.

PURE, which paused theatrical productions March 14 in response to the pandemic, will host the first of a three-part virtual reading series titled "Bearing Witness" on July 17. The series is a partnership between PURE, the Charleston Arts Festival and Buxton Books, and while some of the details are still being ironed out, like whether the three participating actors will be gathered in the same space or reading virtually, the audience will be able to tune in online.

"We're still determining if we can put all the actors in one place, safely socially-distanced," PURE artistic director Sharon Graci said. "Producing during the pandemic isn't like producing under normal circumstances: Things fall into place, then change the next day. But we're confident that everything will work out."

Part one of "Bearing Witness" was originally slated to be Father Comes Home from the Wars, a Civil War-era drama that follows an enslaved person named Hero from his home in West Texas to the Confederate battlefield. In a last minute change (the nature of producing during the time of COVID, according to Graci), though, the first reading will now come from Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, the founder and CEO of the Gullah Society. Ofunniyin's play is titled Denmark Vesey: Every Man Has A Story.

Ofunniyin says that Every Man Has A Story, "chronicles what might have been Denmark Vesey and his lieutenant Gullah Jack's stories leading up to the planned Rise of 1822 in Charleston. All three plays in the "Bearing Witness" series were selected in response to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent anti-racism protests that erupted worldwide. "It's a continuation of PURE's activism," Graci said. "This is a conversation that we need to be having."

To Graci, the most important aspect of this reading series is how each play touches on the roots of racial inequity in the United States, and how America's Original Sin of slavery continues to have repercussions in contemporary times.

"It asks us to take a look at why these issues of inequity are so deeply rooted," she said. "It forces us to grapple with how the U.S. economy began to flourish thanks to the institution of slavery, and how some of us have benefited, and still benefit, from that institution, while others continue to be oppressed."

"When you start 300 yards behind in the race, there's no equity there," she added.

While the content of these plays directly address this distinct American moment, the medium by which PURE will deliver it — virtually, that is — is also a reaction to current events. For some theaters, this interruption may have felt like a gut punch. But for PURE, it was an opportunity.

"The pandemic has taken away our most vital element, live performance, but I believe that our voices are more urgently needed now than perhaps ever before," PURE co-founder Rodney Rogers said. "It's incumbent upon us to identify new platforms to remain active and engaged."

The theater has tried to do just that with PURE Institute, a branch of the organization responsible for education and outreach. COVID-19 didn't spawn these new platforms, but it did quicken their development. The virtual reading series, which PURE plans to continue for the foreseeable future, may be the best example of what Rogers called "a new type of medium that's in between live theater and filmed entertainment."

"It gives the audience access to the heart and brain of PURE," Graci said.

There's also a virtual book club, born out of a partnership with Buxton Books, that will be available to PURE subscribers and feature readings by core ensemble members, and its end goal is to "enhance what we're producing on stage," Rogers said. Lastly, the PURE podcast hosted by core ensemble member Michael Smallwood will focus on creativity, art-making and provocative ideas within the theatrical realm.

All of these options serve the same purpose: to maintain interaction between PURE and its audience during a time without in-person productions.

"Ultimately everything we're trying to do with [these] offerings is to bring our audiences closer to our work and to make the experience of PURE even more meaningful," Rogers said.

Nobody knows for sure when in-person productions will return. Some theaters, as Graci noted, have suspended operations until spring of 2021 at the earliest. But PURE, which has been buoyed by donations during the pandemic, isn't ready to throw in the towel on 2020 just yet.

"I think what's going to happen is that we're going to have to produce outside the theater: literally [an] outside [play,]" Graci said. "Everything is still very much up in the air, but we're hopeful that we'll be able to do something between now and then [2021]."

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