Mary Tuomanen: Getting woke, producing plays galore

Mary Tuomanen in the premiere of her one woman show "Hello! Sadness!" at the SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

It is no surprise that Philadelphia actress-playwright-director Mary Tuomanen gets little rest. “I’m talking to you now from D.C., where I’m getting ready to protest in a few hours,” she says with a chuckle, as part of several interviews. “No sleep for the wicked.”

If protest is keeping Tuomanen awake as a woman and an activist, it is surely creating a socially aware restlessness in her work as she opens not one, but two, politicized shows this week: MARCUS/EMMA, the play she has written about capitalist Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey and Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman at InterAct Theatre Company; and Hello! Sadness!, her excursion at FringeArts into the troubled life of actress and one-time Black Panther Jean Seberg. Add her self-penned Peaceable Kingdom, a dark comedy about the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania and a longing for Utopia, that's coming in May to Christ Church Neighborhood House (through Tuomanen’s playwright collective Orbiter 3).

She started writing these works  in 2013 almost simultaneously. Tuomanen calls her condition “play pregnancy,” a state in which subject matter weighs heavily and must come out with urgency when ready. “All three are exercises in thinking out loud  — part of the slow, painful process of becoming more politically aware,” she says. “I think a lot of us are on that journey right now, as Americans, which makes me hopeful.”

Tuomanen began writing Hello! Sadness! after meditating on the script for the 1957 film Saint Joan, which starred Seberg, who played the famed martyr. Tuomanen had difficulties with the script that led her to “trace the triumphs and spectacular failures in my own continuing journey toward ‘getting woke.’ ” She feels close to Seberg because both are petite, boyish, white actresses, both played Joan of Arc, both lived in France and “speak French with medium-good to bad accents,” she says, giggling. “But Seberg also struggled to find her place as an activist, spent her life harassed by the FBI after giving money to support the Black Panther Party, and eventually committed suicide. That part of her became extremely interesting to me.” Tuomanen was led to ask: “How could someone like me get involved in the struggle for the liberation of all peoples — especially people of color — while still profiting from my own privilege?”

While working on MARCUS/EMMA, Tuomanen wound up taking in aspects of not only Black Lives Matter and the Occupy Movement, but also Emma Goldman’s writings on free love and utopian ideals. That journey is how Peacable Kingdom came into her imagination, along with another imagined relationship -- between William Penn and Lenape chief Tamanend.

 

Tuomanen says works such as MARCUS/EMMA, Hello! Sadness!, and Peaceable Kingdom also focus on how to be a good ally, how to advocate for others and show solidarity. In Peaceable Kingdom, William Penn shows up with every intention of being a great ally to the Delaware Indians. “We’ve got a treaty, we’re super into each other, this is going to be great! Happy ever after,” says Tuomanen. “That character became a great vehicle to talk about how good intentions are not enough — in every intimate relationship, you’re going to screw up.”

 

In her varied pursuits and works for different Philadelphia theater ensembles (Orbiter 3, Applied Mechanics, Bearded Ladies, etc.), Tuomanen has witnessed how every group can be its own little family, its own little utopia. “And utopias cannot stagnate. They evolve or die,” she says. “There’s heartbreak in transformation. Any good love involves getting your heart broken. Even then, it sometimes doesn’t work. But we have to try, right?”


MARCUS/EMMA. Through Feb. 12 by the InterAct Theatre Company. Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: $15-$38. Information: 215-568-8079, www.interacttheatre.org.

Hello! Sadness! 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. Tickets: $15-$20. Information: 215-413-9006, fringearts.com.