School of Performing Arts' theatre production weaves a tale of truth and lies in Russia
"True is what happens. False is what does not happen." So says Nikolai Yezhov, a character in the play “Describe the Night” by Rajiv Joseph and a real-life member of Stalin’s secret police who oversaw the worst of the Great Purge and was himself executed under Stalin’s orders.
The School of Performing Arts production will run in the Squires Studio Theatre for six performances from Nov. 10-15.
The award-winning epic follows eight characters over the course of nearly 100 years. “The story takes place in Poland, Russia, and East Germany, and bounces back and forth between 1920 and 2010, held together by the through-line of a personal diary’s accidental journey,” said director Susanna Rinehart, a faculty member in the School of Performing Arts. “It is gorgeous in its theatrical construction, its language, its comedy and wit, and it has unnervingly timely resonance in its subject matter, given Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and our own struggles with truth and lies.”
Fact and fiction become blurred when real historical figures such as Nikolai Yezhov, Joseph Stalin, Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel (whose diary journeys 90 years over the course of the play), and another too-familiar contemporary figure mix into the theatrical tapestry woven by the playwright. Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2010 play, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” writes from a storyteller’s vantage.
“Like Babel’s diary, we are only given fragments of the past through which we can attempt to discern a logic. This is simply the nature of storytelling and memory," Joseph told Walter Bilderback of The Wilma Theater. “But darker forces throughout history (continuing to the present day) have preyed upon the fragmented nature of information in order to control people and create fear and confusion. Or as others might say, in order to keep the peace.”
Themes of global citizenship, reality, and the value of art are revealed through scenes that time travel from the front lines of the Polish-Soviet war, a modern car rental agency, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
“The play is hilariously funny at times, deeply serious at others, and speaks in particular to the nature of lies and truth,” Rinehart said.
To show “the residue of the human scope of the historical timeline of the play,” the stage will have looming “theatrical mountains of destroyed lives,” conceived by veteran designer Randy Ward. Props designer Alexander Munn, a third-year Master of Fine Arts student, and technical director Laura Copenhaver will acquire and construct the nearly two-story piles of rubble. The design and technical team will curate the different decades of history by pulling from the theatre department’s furniture stock.
Lighting designer Daryl Norman Soh, a first-year Master of Fine Arts student, illuminates the different scenes, structures, and a menacing incinerator. The design and technical elements of the show tell their own story of destruction, including a multi-layered soundscape design by sound design faculty member Allen Sanders, assisted by theatre major Kate Gonzales; and costumes designed by faculty member Tyler Holland, assisted by theater major Justin Buontempo. Theatre major Maya Jaffe leads the stage management team.
“In the shadow of Putin’s war on Ukraine and our own contemporary mis/disinformation age," said Rinehart," 'Describe the Night’ reminds us, ‘When we say something is true, it becomes true. When we say something is false, it becomes false.’”
Tickets and parking
Tickets are $15 for general admission and $12 for seniors and students, and may be purchased through the Moss Arts Center ticket office in person or online. Tickets will be available at the door in the Squires Student Center beginning one hour prior to the performance. Tickets are available online.
All university community members and visitors will need to display a parking permit, use the ParkMobile app, pay a fee, or pay using an hourly meter to park on the Blacksburg campus unless otherwise noted by signage. Find additional parking information here.
If you are an individual with a disability and/or desire an accommodation, please contact Susan Sanders prior to the event.
Written by Liz Gray, a graduate student in arts leadership in the School of Performing Arts