While Ironweed Productions' performances of works by playwrights like Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder and Sam Shepard have impressed townsfolk for nearly 15 years, one theme was pervasive in the company's repertoire: Lots of dead white men.
Sure, canonical works are canonical for a reason. They're exceptional. But a significant paradigm shift occurring in art and media and across the country acknowledges at last that women, queer folk and people of color have stories just as viable, and it's our duty now as stewards of the craft to hand them the mic. (No, we don't have to "give them a voice." They have a voice. The dominant narrative just needs to shut up and let them talk.)
Ironweed founder and artistic director Scott Harrison agrees. Back in September, as he prepared for the Santa Fe Theatre Walk, he told SFR about a new direction for his well-established Santa Fe theater company. "Ironweed's looking to more fully embrace diverse American stories," Harrison said then. "We've done several [American Classics], but I don't really want that to be the way that we're seen."
Ironweed's first foray into its new storytelling mission is a one-woman show by Georgian immigrant Ketevan Kharshiladze Ussery. Ussery illegally entered the United States in 2000, leaving behind her beloved city of Tbilisi, where she managed a theater and was a successful director. Harrison met her in 2004, at which time she was working on a one-woman show about her experiences.
Ussery was deported in 2007, and then re-entered the United States—legally—in 2011. She and Harrison connected again.
Ussery still wanted to write a one-woman show. "She said, 'I'd love to find an actress to do this,'" Harrison told SFR in September. "I said, 'I'd love to work on this, but only if you'll perform it.'"
Now, that 70-minute monologue years in the making comes to Teatro Paraguas for two weekends. Harrison and Ussery invited SFR to a dress rehearsal to get a sneak peek.
In true Santa Fe one-woman-show fashion, there aren't a ton of bells and whistles with this one; the only set pieces are a chair and two suitcases, and Ussery has a purse with five or six props inside. Highly effective lighting by Matt Sanford helps transition us from "scene" to "scene" in her narrated story, but it's mostly Ussery's magnetic expressions and fine storytelling tactics that keep us engaged.
Our town sure loves its one-woman shows, and many tend to share one flaw: They take on too much. It's understandable that a woman who's had one hell of an interesting life would want to tell an audience about the whole thing, every major event, down to this very day; and many of the one-woman shows we've seen in the last few years accomplish this at the expense of detailed, more writerly storytelling.
Entering the rehearsal for Hidden Treasure, I wondered how Ussery would manage to cram her childhood, her young adulthood, seven years here, three years back in Georgia, then eight years back in the US again all into 70 minutes. I held on tight and prepared to be exhausted by a mad dash through her life.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that Ussery has chosen to focus on just one aspect of her life story: Her very first job in America. We do get a good sense of her childhood and young adulthood through a few anecdotes, and her description of her harrowing entrance to America (Tbilisi to Moscow to Amsterdam to Mexico City to Juarez, then crawling through a 2-mile-long underground tunnel, if you were curious) helps us to appreciate just how much she reveled in a $10-an-hour retail job on the Santa Fe Plaza.
Despite a raging head cold for which Ussery apologized profusely at the dress rehearsal, her speech was clear and deliberate, and her facial expressions shone like the sun as she talked about her childhood in Georgia under Soviet rule, and how delighted she was to meet "real Americans" at her school at age 7. By her adulthood, when she was artistic director of a 500-seat theater in the vibrant capital city, there was no power, no money; they often had to rehearse by candlelight. "Dying in the streets is common," Ussery described. (Oh, there it is, the ever-present timeliness; I shuddered off the thought of the 25 or so unsheltered folks who freeze in Santa Fe every winter.)
So Ussery came to America where, despite getting happily married and falling in love with the smooth "velvet highways" of the West, she was still an undocumented immigrant. She describes living through a filter; nothing felt quite real, because she wasn't really supposed to be here.
A world opened up when she was able to get a job, however; and, as is the experience of many folks in our society, working was both empowering and degrading. Ussery's stories of the customers at the jewelry store and powerful threads woven through her time behind the display cases, plus her own experience of making a retail job a theatrical endeavor, are inspiring to hear—but in the end, she was still an employee, and we get frustrated right along with her as she is treated poorly or rendered powerless.
Ussery's masterful sense of contrast from story to story kept Hidden Treasure flowing like a river. From a smile as bright as a sun to childlike wonder when playing with a little boy in the shop to crouched in a tunnel in Juarez and more, Ussery is like that favorite great-aunt who has nothing but incredible tales to tell—only this time she's onstage instead of at the kitchen table, and she has an acting background to boot.
And luckily for us, Hidden Treasure is crafted like a superhero movie that just begs for a sequel.
Hidden Treasure: A Georgian Immigrant's Story
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays March 7-16; 2 pm Sunday March 10 and 17. $10-$20.
3205 Calle Marie,