Review: ‘Where Words Once Were’ Leaves Young Audiences with More Questions than Answers

By Grace Niesel, Junior Correspondent

With themes of dictatorship and a nationalist government, Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Where Words Once Were could be considered to be too heavy to have been included in a family series of plays for Theatre Raleigh. But it works. With a sparse set and few props, it’s perfectly suited for the small Kennedy Theatre space. Throughout various scenes, two members of the cast hold up signs, with messages that tiptoe between sweet and just plain weird. To paraphrase one sign: “I will grow a forest and carve your name into every tree”. In the play’s context, where language is limited to 1000 words and specific words are forbidden to speak, the use of signs is interesting.

The City requires its students to start every day with a chant: “This is my pen, I use it and then I return it again, amen.” The students greet each other with, “We love the City!” If they don’t recite these chants, they’re punished. The concept of students starting their periods with chants to their country is dystopian.

Did I forget to mention that the use of writing utensils by anybody other than a City Official is illegal? While odd, it serves as an important plot point for the main character Orhan, portrayed passionately by Vincent Bland Jr. Orhan and his mother Alli, played by the beautiful Tyanna West, run a bakery. When the outside wall of the bakery is vandalized and covered with forbidden words, Orhan doesn’t know what the words mean. It causes him to wonder, how can a word cease to exist if it existed once? More importantly, it causes him to wonder how can someone cease to exist if they once existed?

Narrating the show is Angela, also known as Girl, played by the captivating Qualia Akili Holder-Cozart. Angela and her father played the multi-talented Sean McCracken, were “erased” from The City for speaking forbidden words. They can’t speak, be spoken to, or even be seen. Angela arms Orhan with much-needed wisdom, insight, and power of palindromes and anagrams. After all, The City may allow only 1000 words, but there are still 26 letters.

Of these palindromes, a crowning moment of the show comes when Angela’s father reveals one of his favorites on the vandalized wall, “No! It is opposition,” which reads the same backward as forward. And of the anagrams, Angela shares that “silent” can be turned into “listen” with the shuffling around of a few letters.

Aside from the drama of the show, Kieran, played by the passionate Matthew Harvey, and Eila, played by Christine Lane, provide some comic relief and support as Orhan’s best friends. One comical moment of the show happens when Kieran eats a piece of paper with something anti-City written on it and then proclaims, “I am a very good friend!” 

As a teenager myself, that is exactly how we are!

Issac, the Official, played by the passionate Liam Yates, provides both the main conflict and resolution. He needs to keep his job, yet he sympathizes with Orhan and Alli. He knows the role of the silenced, yet his niece and his brother are two of them. Put in a hard situation, he ultimately has to make a choice between doing what is right and the law.

At the end of the show, the cast all hold small signs. Each sign contains a letter and a picture. The photographs show images we all recognize, no matter who we are or what side of the political spectrum we are on. Emma Gonzalez, one of the students who spoke out after the Parkland shooting is shown. Homeless people with their lives in grocery carts are shown. Hands up, don’t shoot! And in a bold and perfect move by director Noah Putterman, Issac holds up a photograph of a person behind bars. On the back of each photograph is a letter. When read together, the letters spell out one important word: Language.

Language is the main character of this play, not Orhan, not Girl. Though not a musical, the closing number, The Song of See Leaf Fall is reminiscent of Spring Awakening’s The Song Of Purple Summer. It is a soft and memorable tune that brings the language of the play to full light.

However, there are questions left unanswered by the play. If Alli and Issac were friends, what happened between them? What happened to Kieran after he said a forbidden word? Who exactly is running The City? How long did the ‘War of The Walls’ last? Does the romance between Alli and Issac ever truly progress? But the mark of a good play is to leave you wondering, and truly, Where Words Once Were does.

I’d recommend this play to anyone looking for something that’ll actually grab them. As the wall of forbidden words shows, “Ink Is A True Sword,” and as a writer, I know that better than anyone.

Where Words Once Were runs through April 7th at The Kennedy Theatre. For more information visit: https://www.theatreraleigh.com/.

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