Audience member disrupts 'Passage' at Wilma Theater with racially-charged 'Forrest Gump' outburst

PASSAGE
The cast of Chritopher Chen’s “Passage,” through May 13 at the Wilma Theater.

An audience member disrupted a performance of the play Passage at the Wilma Theater in Center City on Thursday night, and an actor’s Facebook post about the uncomfortable impasse went viral.

In a long Facebook post shortly after the performance, poet, playwright, and Barrymore Award-winning actor Jaylene Clark Owens wrote that “Tonight I had the worst experience I have ever had on stage. Also, one of the worst experiences period.” She said in an interview on Saturday that “I felt scared and threatened.”

From April 19, 2018:Tonight I had the worst experience I have ever had on stage. Also, one of the worst experiences…

Posted by Jaylene Clark Owens on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Owens, who is African American, was performing a scene that included white actor Ross Beschler and actor Justin Jain, who is of Filipino heritage. The characters, who all have letters for names, compare the way things are done in two countries, named X and Y. “I had just said a line of the play in which I used the words ‘their and they,’ ” Owens wrote in the post. That is when a man in the first row, “a white male, somewhere in his 30s-40s, with big muscles,” raised his hand and said in a loud voice, “ ‘Who is they? I don’t know who they are.’ ” The players tried to go on with the scene, but the man continued to talk in a loud voice.

“He then says something along the lines of ‘I don’t mean to interrupt your Black Panther party, and I’m not Forrest Gump,’ ” Clark wrote on Facebook. She said she learned only later that the line comes from the film Forrest Gump, and is spoken by Gump while leaving a Panther party in which he has been in a fight (“Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party”).

The man’s loud objections continued, despite the efforts of one of the actors to reason with him. Clark wrote that her impression was that the man was intoxicated. When the house manager asked the man to leave, he said loudly, “Now I’ve been kicked out. Well I’m not leaving.”

At intermission, he was not allowed to return. Owens wrote that he told a professor that “he was apologetic, but he felt marginalized and attacked, which led to his disturbance. … He was allowed to leave the theatre on his own accord, and we continued with the show.”

Blanka Zizka, cofounder of the Wilma and director of Passage, said Saturday that the man was part of a 60-student contingent from Drexel University attending the play together. “We found out that the man was an Iraq veteran who recently had brain surgery,” she added. The audience member’s name has not been released.

Afterward, the Wilma contacted other theaters and universities to consult them on procedures for handling triggering situations. “None of the theaters had anything like this happen before,” Zizka said. “But the universities often have had controversial speakers come to talk, and they did have procedures in place regarding audience disruption. In this situation, we simply were not prepared, and I do wish that we had been informed beforehand. On Saturday morning, we gathered with the cast and crew and talked this situation through, and by Saturday’s performance, we had procedures in place.” Owens said by text message that “I am happy in the Wilma’s new plan on how to respond should something like this happen again.”

But the fear was real. “There was a lot of soul-searching about the fact that we had a situation in which an actor was in fear,” Zizka said. “Looking back, I feel that maybe the moment when the house manager asked him to leave and he refused – that was the moment we should have stopped the show. Actors must feel they have the freedom to stop the show in a case like this.”

In the Saturday interview, Owens said: “The audience member was only seven to five feet away from us, and anything could have happened.” Her discomfort extended to the following scene, in which she remained close to the audience but in darkness: “Then I felt the most fear. He could have come up on stage. I was thinking, ‘Is my life in danger?’ It was a scary moment.”

“I’ve never had an experience anything like this in the theater,” said Owens. “Nothing where I felt literally as if I were in danger. People have gotten vocal, but nothing where I felt scared, or where someone interrupted the show.”

Passage is by Christopher Chen, a San Francisco Bay Obie Award-winning playwright whose work, according to his website, explores “the hidden patterns beneath complex systems: socio-political systems, psychological systems, systems of power.” Zizka said that “this play is very much about now, and your reaction depends on what you bring into the theater with you. We are finding that people of different races and backgrounds have very different reactions to it. The play does really challenge the audience and asks you questions and asks you to have an opinion. I have seldom directed anything which is so directly about right now.” Passage is a production of the Wilma Theater Hothouse, the experimental collaborative of which Beschler, Jain, and Owens are all members. Owens also is executive director of the Harlem KW Project, a collaborative theater company. Their play Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale will appear at Theatre Horizon in Norristown during the 2018-19 season.

Owens explained that as written by Chen, in Passage race and gender are meant to be dynamic and interchangeable among the characters. “We don’t talk about race directly,” she said, “and I cannot speak for this gentleman, but it’s possible that perhaps he wanted a clear idea of whose side I was on and couldn’t tell. He sees me, a black woman, so maybe he associated me with certain types of ideas, and maybe from there it was easy to think Country Y represents white America and Country X black America.”

What racially charged the moment, she said, “was his reference to the Black Panther party.”

Owens agreed that ironically, the play did its job – “to challenge the audience to examine values, to think critically,” but that in this case it triggered a defensive reaction. “If you act defensively, you stop listening and we can’t move forward,” she said. “It’s not that anger or sadness are not valid emotions. But if we listen, perhaps we can start doing the actual work we need to do to make things happen, not just in our own minds, but in economic and social policy. I hope this man has been able to reflect on it and is doing well.”