In recent years, the worlds of film, theater, and television have seen a drastic increase in diversity, but with that diversity comes a tendency to follow the same tropes over and over again. Media with Black protagonists sometimes falls into Black pain or white savior narratives, media with LGBTQ+ protagonists often lands on the Bury Your Gays trope, and media with female protagonists often ends with vague declarations of girl power. Pork Filled Productions works to combat the stagnation of diverse media by providing a space for BIPOC voices in speculative genre fiction. Their most recent festival, Unleashed: New Pulp Stories for the 21st Century, featured staged readings from POC playwrights. The festival ended with Mustard Seeds, written by Michelle Tyrene Johnson and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, which follows two groups as their stories intertwine: four campers on the bank of the Missouri River and three spirits known as the Unborns. Over the course of a single night, the campers—Liz (Erika Fontana), Anna (Elisa Chavez), Ronnie (Vincent Orduña), and Mack (A. Fontana)—reveal personal truths and confront their own biases, while the Unborns—Taurus (Lauren DuPree), Gemini (Jose Ruffino), and Aries (Sarah Russell)—observe and comment on the behavior of the humans.
The Unborns are revealed to be the unborn children of the slaves who died while attempting to cross the Missouri River on the Underground Railroad. They each have a connection to different elements—Taurus with earth, Gemini with air, and Aries with fire—and learn important lessons from those elements: “listen,” “be patient,” and “burn what you think you know,” respectively. The Unborns also embody the elements they represent: Taurus is grounded and patient, Gemini is wise and spiritual, and Aries is passionate and impulsive. I found the way the Unborns evolved linguistically over the course of the play especially interesting. At first, they speak in mostly African-American Vernacular English and use antiquated vocabulary, hinting at the time period they came from, but as they spend more time listening to the campers, they adopt a more modern, academic dialect and use 21st-century slang. On the night the play takes place, under the light of the pink moon, the Unborns have a chance at life, and all they have to do is pick which of the campers they will be born to.
Their task is easier said than done.
Here’s the thing about the campers: they’re terrible people. From the beginning, the group dynamic is tense as they poke at and snipe and mock each other, taking cheap shots and making cruel comments. Liz is especially and immediately unlikeable, with her proclivity for insensitive and racist remarks, and her relationship with Anna, her former best friend, is particularly hostile. Most of the audience, myself included, seemed to like Mack the most, both because he seemed to be the kindest of the four and because his attempts at diffusing tension through humor were relatable and entertaining. In the talk-back at the end of the show, Johnson mentioned that Ronnie was not meant to be interpreted as neurodivergent, which was a bit disappointing, as he had seemed to be coded that way and there’s a real need for more positive neurodivergent representation in all forms of media. New information is slowly revealed to the audience over the course of the play: Mack comes out as gay and is coping with the recent loss of his mother, Ronnie is worried about the future for his biracial son and has been hiding many concerns about his marriage with Lizzy, Anna feels guilty for not knowing more about her Mexican heritage and is questioning her career path, and Lizzy recently miscarried and has been struggling with the strains on her marriage. Characters who were once easy to hate become just a little more understood and redeemable, even if their actions are never excused. The play ends with a hopeful tone, as the Unborns get a chance at life (Both Taurus and Aries will be reborn to Ronnie and Lizzy as twins, although Gemini chooses to stay behind), and the campers get a chance to do better.
Several audience members kept up a running commentary in the chat that accompanied the stream throughout the production and often mentioned how none of the campers were very likable. Lizzy was the main target of this—audience members chimed in with quips like “Lizzy is such a Karen” and “Lizzy, NO”—but none of the campers were safe from criticism. In the discussion at the end of the production, Johnson mentioned that this was on purpose because the campers are human and therefore complex and deeply flawed. They confront their personal biases and make positive changes to their behavior over the course of the night, but they never become perfect, just a bit better, and that’s okay.
This was the first play I attended since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic began, and the team at Pork Filled Productions did not disappoint. The production was adapted to a virtual format on Zoom, making creative use of backgrounds, costumes, and the mute/unmute functions to simulate an in-person experience. Everything was well-rehearsed and there were no hiccups or technical difficulties, an impressive accomplishment given the finicky nature of virtual experiences. Even though the format was different than an in-person production, this play was a breath of fresh air, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Johnson and Pork Filled Productions.
Mustard Seeds premiered November 14, 2020 at Pork Filled Productions' Unleashed Festival. For more information see here.