Director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell gave audiences a glimpse into how plays are developed last week with a virtual reading of Celeste Jennings’ new work, Processing.
The play is still being fine-tuned, according to Holloway-Burrell. Four actors joined the director on a live video conference to do a cold read of the one-hour work, each with only a few hours of preparation.
“We are all here in service of helping further develop this piece for the playwright,” said Holloway-Burrell.
“But this piece is also about community and the people of Charlotte. This play was developed and commissioned to highlight the stories that often go untold and communities that go unrepresented.”
Processing, set in present-day Charlotte, follows the day-to-day struggles of Nia, a young Black economics professor; Enrique, her Latino husband who is still trying to get his green card; Serena, her fellow professor and best friend; and Jamal, a former professor trying to make it in the private sector.
Over the course of one weekend, Nia struggles to find validation in her field, while Enrique rages against the injustice and incompetence of the immigration system. The couple is often at odds as they try to find a balance between their personal and professional lives, embodying the millennial conflict between security and ambition.
But the real enemy of all the characters is the system. Nia, Enrique, Serena and Jamal all share the same story — they’re constantly trying to find a way to win against an unequal society.
Technology is a consistent theme throughout the play. The characters’ frustration and impatience with unreliable devices and roadblocks they can’t control mirror their feelings about the community they have to try and make a life in.
Ultimately, just as Enrique’s green card application is “processing,” everyone is waiting. Waiting on the government. Waiting for a relationship. Waiting for what comes next.
The play embraces colloquial dialogue, including a significant amount of Spanish, putting the audience into the characters’ world rather than the other way around. It gives a sharp criticism of the anti-immigration stance of the Trump administration by showing how it affects real Americans, particularly “Dreamers.”
Jennings said she had to do a lot of research to truly understand how immigration works in the United States., she said.
“I really learned so much about just how unfortunate and horrible and confusing this process is for too many people right now,” she said.
Following the play, Jamil Jude, artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta, hosted a talkback. Jude and the production team were joined by the founders of The Sadie Collective, an organization aimed at bringing together black women in “quantitatively demanding” fields of academics such as economics, its website stated.
Co-founder Fanta Traore, who works for the U.S. Federal Reserve System, said what struck her about the play was the relationship between Nia and Serena.
“There are plenty of Black women at the Fed, but generally their roles are more administrative, and the Black men you’ll see are security guards,” she said.
“I really appreciated seeing the camaraderie between the two, because it’s really important to have someone who can affirm you and your experiences.”
Jennings said it’s been “odd” to develop the piece without an audience.
“It makes me really curious to know what theater’s going to look like for the next few months,” she said. “I get my validation from the audience. I like to hear them laugh or not laugh, it makes me know what I need to change.”
Kaja Dunn, who played Nia and helped produce the show, agreed.
“At first it was devastating when (COVID-19) happened, that we wouldn’t be able to meet in person,” she said. “But then we were able to get (the other actors) involved. It’s just been a real gift and it feels like community.”
To view the reading, visit the Women’s Theatre Festival’s Twitch TV Channel.
For more information about this work, visit:
- JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell’s Website (Instagram @jhbdirectedit)
- Celeste Jennings’ Website (Instagram @celestejenn)
- Kaja Dunn (Twitter @kajadunn)