In Theatre Y’s most recent production of Juliet—the company’s third time putting up Hungarian-Romanian playwright András Visky’s familial autobiographical work in the past ten years—the theater itself is a womb.
“We call it the red room of the soul,” says Melissa Lorraine, Theatre Y’s cofounding artistic director, who portrays the titular character in the play. “It’s not a womb in the safe way, it’s a womb in the essential way, so we tried to make the lobby a safer kind of womb space to hold the audience before they entered this harder space.”
An essential detail of this ancillary womb space is an accompanying six-person art show, curated with the overarching theme of motherhood in mind. The show features artwork by six local artists: Elise Glickman, Erin O’Neill, Tracy Marie Taylor, Keila Strong, Sophie Peterson, and Mary Hazboun. Lorraine put out the call for art and personally sorted through the submissions. Collectively, the work has a tonal range that feels natural considering the ways in which the broad theme of motherhood hits for different people, and the mix of media employed by the different artists offer a visceral reminder of this as well.
“I ended up choosing works that I somehow felt were extraordinarily related to the show,” Lorraine says. “I had enough submissions to be able to really select specific works that I felt, ‘Wow, did they read the play before they made this? Because this is so related.'”
In 1959, András Visky was barely two years old when he, along with his six siblings and his mother, Júlia (i.e. Juliet) were arrested and deported to the Romanian wilderness as part of the ruling Communist party’s infamous Bărăgan deportations. For six years, Júlia and her children faced constant threat of torture and execution before finally being released in 1964. Juliet is the story of that time in the Visky family’s history, as imagined through Júlia’s eyes, delivered in monologue.
The director of this production of Juliet, Kevin V. Smith, felt very strongly about putting the subject of motherhood center stage this time around, Lorraine says, as he was recently reunited with his own birth mother. In addition to Lorraine’s compelling performance, the show includes a chorus of mothers and their children. Their presence throughout Juliet’s delivery of her harrowing experience of deportation underlines this theme as the production’s core.
“Motherhood is kind of universal. If we’re not mothers, we all have moms, and I think there’s a lot going on in the art world right now centering around mother artists,” says O’Neill, referencing exhibits on art and motherhood currently taking place in London at the Foundling Museum with Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media and Nashville, where the creator of a podcast that examines the artist/mother identity, Kaylan Buteyn, has curated Mother or (K)not, her first group showaround the exploration of that dual identity.
O’Neill’s contributions to the group show are various watercolor explorations of her daughter’s form and identity.
“I was intrigued by how different the form of a small child was to that of the adult figures I was accustomed to referencing,” O’Neill writes in an artist statement that accompanies her work. “It was not only in her anatomy but in her gestures and stances as she was learning how to use her body, all while I was relearning how to be an artist.”
While there are other themes that vie for dominance in Juliet, like faith and spousal love, “all of those things somehow came to a critical juncture in Juliet’s life when she thought she was going to have to watch her children die in front of her,” Lorraine says.
The timing of this production of Juliet and its accompanying art show is poignant on two levels, allowing for rich, guided discourse amongst the audience after each performance. There is, of course, the continued practice of family separation and deportation at the U.S. border in an increasingly hostile political climate. Chicago-based Palestinian artist Mary Hazboun’s contributions to the group show—and her lived experiences—in particular speak to this angle. She was born and raised in Bethlehem and lived under Israeli military occupation. In 2004, at the age of 21, she migrated to the U.S. with her family.
One of Hazboun’s contributions to the show, Collective Trauma, is an ink drawing portraying an intertwined pile of seven people, an eerie, unplanned homage to Juliet’s seven children in the show. Throughout one of the earliest performances of the play, Hazboun watched from the audience, quietly writing and sketching throughout.
“Because I’ve lived in a very particular place and circumstances, I try as hard as I can [in my art] to challenge the fixed narrative we have about war zones, because people’s stories are different and their experiences are different,” she says. “It’s important to add context in order for us not to create that monolithic narrative that women are just victims.” v