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

Jan 30, 2018
  • By Shelia M. Poole
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
January LaVoy plays The Poet in “Native Guard” by the Alliance Theatre at the Atlanta History Center. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG MOONEY

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.

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“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.”

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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.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Native Guard”

Through Feb. 4. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $25-$52. Alliance Theatre production at Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/nativeguard.