‘Native Guard’ inspires range of feelings from frustration to activism

January LaVoy first stepped on stage in Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s powerful play, “Native Guard,” in 2014.

She reprises the role of The Poet this year for the Alliance Theatre.

In four years, though, much has changed in the cultural and political landscape of the United States. Today, that shift is apparent in the second act of “Native Guard,” during which the audience is engaged in a conversation.

RelatedAlliance reprises haunting “Native Guard” at the Atlanta History Center

“People have become much more vocal in questioning why certain things are happening politically and socially in this country, and asking what they can do to change the things they disagree with,” said LaVoy, who is best known for her role as Noelle Ortiz-Stubbs on the ABC daytime drama “One Life to Live.”

She thinks “that kind of activation is a wonderful thing. One of the great lessons of the past few years is that no one else is going to take responsibility for the way things are — we have to take that on ourselves. We have to put our thoughts and words into action.”

RelatedFaith leaders say Trump’s alleged remarks are disgusting

The play, which is based on Trethewey’s poetry collection, runs through Feb. 4 at the Atlanta History Center. The play weaves the stories of the writer’s complex background as the child of an African-American mother and white father growing up in 1960s Mississippi and the harrowing story of African-American soldiers in the Union Army in the Civil War.

Indeed, the racial climate has become much more divisive than it was in 2014, with debates raging over Confederate monuments, a Muslim ban and strict immigration policies that could force out hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.

President Donald Trump allegedly referred to Haiti, African nations and El Salvador as “shithole” countries and suggested more immigrants come from Norway.

Kaaren Cranford, a retired medical technologist from Decatur, cried at times watching “Native Guard.” “You think back to what people have had to put up with in this country and it’s just really sad.”

She wonders how much has really changed.

The current divisions in the United States “just irritate me so much,” she said.

During the second act, for example, Cranford wondered aloud why so many people wanted to keep the Confederate statues.

“I’m really tired of hearing, ‘This is our heritage,’” Cranford said. “Why are you so happy to have that kind of history of abuse, buying and selling other humans, using other humans to get ahead financially with no reward for them? Why do you want that for your history?”

LaVoy’s approach to the material has changed as well.

“I think the biggest change in my approach to the piece is that I trust both the piece, and the audience, more than I did in 2014,” she said. “One of the astonishing things about this book is that Natasha wrote it in 2006, and it only becomes more relevant with each passing year — not less. So I know I can rely on the inherent truth of what she’s written. And people are listening and paying attention to the world around them in 2018 in a way I’ve never seen in my adult life. So I trust that they’re listening to the show in a much more focused way. It feels much more like a conversation we’re all having together.”

Stephanie Wachs, a social worker who lives in Gresham Park, grew up in Texas and didn’t really understand the complexities, history and struggles of nonwhites until she went to college.

“I was very much raised in a culture of white privilege,” she said. “My parents don’t believe white privilege exists.”

After watching the play, she went home and Googled Native Guard.

“It made me think about the lack of awareness that this story existed,” she said. “It makes me wonder what we can do to change that. It’s really sad that it depends on your teacher, which version of history you get.”

The play can take its actors on an emotional journey as well.

“I have a friend who is an actor and has been doing this quite a bit longer than I have,” said LaVoy. “He says the body does not know that the trauma that we receive on stage isn’t real, just in the same way the body does not know that a staged kiss isn’t real, which gets people in trouble.”

For instance, as an actor, her character’s recounting a cross burning on the lawn causes her to tear up and her heart to race.

She has to visualize those scenes to make it real to the audience.

“I’m tired emotionally and physically,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of tension I have to hold in my body that I can’t release until the very end of the show.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Things to do in and around Atlanta for Monday, June 16
Things to do in and around Atlanta for Monday, June 16

Weekend hangover? What weekend hangover? Yeah, we know. Monday can be a drag, what with having to get back into the normal weekday routine. So, don’t do it. No, we’re not suggesting you play hooky from work or school. That would be wrong. But nothing’s wrong with mixing in an hour or two (or three) of playtime with your more...
Prince Louis' christening portraits revealed: Kate Middleton, royal family stun in new photos
Prince Louis' christening portraits revealed: Kate Middleton, royal family stun in new photos

The British royal family released four official portraits Sunday from the christening of Prince Louis, the youngest son of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. According to Kensington Palace, Matt Holyoak took the new photos last Monday at Clarence House after the 2-month-old prince was christened at Chapel Royal at St. James' Palace...
Theater preview: ‘The Book of Mormon’ still showing its heart
Theater preview: ‘The Book of Mormon’ still showing its heart

In the seven years since “The Book of Mormon” stampeded Broadway with its artful mix of the sardonic skewering of Mormon beliefs and well-intentioned sweetness, dozens of musicals have floundered. But the script and songs from “South Park” inventors Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” alum Robert Lopez (now...
‘American Idol’ notes: the tour, Kelly Clarkson, Bo Bice 
‘American Idol’ notes: the tour, Kelly Clarkson, Bo Bice 

The “American Idol” tour began last week. There were no press reviews from the first two concerts in Redding, Calif. and Central Point, Ore. and it took some sleuthing by MJ Santilli at MJ’s Big Blog to dig up the set list. She also noted people who did show up didn’t light up YouTube with a lot of videos.  The tour this...
TV best bets with Robin Williams, ‘Snowfall,’ ‘Suits,’ 30th annual Shark Week
TV best bets with Robin Williams, ‘Snowfall,’ ‘Suits,’ 30th annual Shark Week

The comedic genius and tragic death of legendary comic Robin Williams is explored on HBO Monday night. He committed suicide in 2014. The documentary features audio interviews from Williams himself.  USA’s “Suits,” now without the royally betrothed Meghan Markle, has added Wendell Pierce ( “Treme”) and ...
More Stories