Play by Drama Dept. chair explores identity, resilience

Mariah Ghant ’17 and Becky Whittaker ’18 co-star in “Trippin’ Through Mud,” the third part of a trilogy written and directed by Associate Professor and Chairperson of Drama Shona Tucker. / Courtesy of Shona Tucker

“I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness,” stated playwright August Wilson. Mere listening and watching are vital steps on the way to understanding both oneself and others, an art form in and of itself that many media attempt to coax out and help along its way.

This weekend, the Vassar community has a unique opportunity to bear humble witness in such a shared space. Three performances of “Trippin’ Through Mud: A diversity reading” will be given this Thursday, Friday and Saturday—Feb. 16 to 18—at 8 p.m. in Vogelstein’s Martel Theater. “Trippin’ Through Mud” was written and directed by Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Drama Department Shona Tucker, a working actor and writer herself, as part of her “Mississippi Mud” trilogy. “Trippin’” is the third in the trilogy, and thus will run 1 hour and 5 minutes long.

In describing the show’s plot, Tucker wrote, “It is ostensibly about two African American women taking a road trip to do some genealogy research of their past in central eastern Mississippi. But from the start of the trip, things don’t go the way they expected and they end up uncovering much more.”

Tucker’s script brings the audience along for the ride, immersing them not only in the two women’s lives, but also in common experiences of Black Americans. “Prof. Tucker has managed to create an entire ride for the audience to join the characters on with various stops and adventures and an ensemble of wacky yet honest characters,” expressed Mariah Ghant ’17, who plays Celeste, one of the two main characters. “I think that for a story of this nature, the theater provides a perfect space for holding a mirror up to the past and being able to sort through that personal and historical weight.”

For Tucker, hearing stories told by women was a common occurrence in her family, most notably from her grandmother, whom she called a griot in reference to West African oral storytellers. Tucker learned about many family members, including an uncle who found alternative ways to make money besides picking cotton, even robbing banks. When he got to jail, he did not let his entrepreneurial spirit die, selling candy and other items to fellow inmates—“THAT is enterprising,” Tucker wrote.

“And the women were equally creative,” she continued. “I suppose I thought, August Wilson tells the stories of the black everyman. I needed to hear the women’s stories.” And thus “Trippin’ Through Mud” was born.

Echoing her griot grandmother, Tucker incorporated—metaphorically—a call-and-response approach to the rehearsal process for this play. “She has very unique visions, but she is always open to change and feedback,” stated Imani Russell ’18, a member of the ensemble portraying a tour guide and various family members of the main characters. “I have always felt heard and that’s wonderful and honestly very rare … This process has taught me to speak up and ask questions more.”

Meeting for only four rehearsals before tech week, however, meant the production functioned more like professional ones do, with the actors needing to put in a lot of time working independently on their parts. “I am an actor through and through, so it informs everything about my process,” Tucker explained. “I tend to write big characters that happen in an instant because I love that kind of challenge as an actor.”

She went on: “I write my lines from an oral perspective. Many times, I have to hear it come out of the actor’s mouth or out of my mouth to say—‘Okay that was clunky’ or that doesn’t have the ‘juice’ I was expecting. It also gives me, I hope, a healthy amount of humility because I…[know the value in allowing] the actors to have a healthy amount of collaboration…”

This method was challenging for the cast and crew, considering they all received updated scripts right before starting tech week. All of them, though, found that working under Professor Tucker’s guidance, grappling with and exploring the words she wrote, has been incredibly rewarding.

“It is inspiring to work with Professor Tucker,” said Becky Whittaker ’18, who plays the other main character Mona. “She sets the tone. She is enthusiastic about discovery and throughout the entire process she encourages collaboration…It is rewarding and special to see all of our ideas come through into the world of the play.”

Stage manager Turner Hitt ’18 summed it up nicely: “I’ve found that the most rewarding parts of doing this have come from them being most challenging.”

Tucker’s ultimate vision was not to shy away from these technical challenges because the complex stories demand them. People’s lives are not clear-cut, and history—especially the narratives that are painfully lost or that far too often go untold—certainly is not either.

In describing her hopes for what audiences can take away from “Trippin’ Through Mud,” Tucker conveyed the following: “That humor and pathos co-exist. That this story/these stories touch upon moments in their own lives so they can relate. That they will feel a little smarter and pleased that they took the time when they walk out the door.”

In live performance, Hitt explained, “You have real bodies, real people, exploring human emotion that is constantly changing. Someone is taking another person’s pain, joy, fear, love and putting it through their being for an audience.”

Whittaker agreed, expressing, “In a piece like this that explores such an important, deeply personal, sometimes painful story, the stage is a space where we can give voice to those whose voices are usually hindered.” With this in mind, let us gather together as an audience and bear witness—to a family’s past and its descendants’ present, to the beauty of artistic reflection and to the unique power of a story well told.

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