Language, visuals coalesce in Alliance’s ‘Native Guard’

Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth’s world-premiere staging of “Native Guard” is inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey, the Atlanta-based former U.S. poet laureate who currently oversees the creative writing program at Emory.

Trethewey’s eloquent poetry is very much front and center, as it should be. It’s an elegiac remembrance of things past, both in her personal life and in a larger historical context — and how the two “connect across time and space,” how she gains a better understanding of her own identity through her empathy for the epic struggles of others.

Most of the poems express intimate observations about her family and her upbringing in a time and place that “made a crime of me,” as the child of a white father and a black mother in 1960s Mississippi. But some of them reflect the Civil War stories of young men from the Louisiana Native Guard, freed slaves who formed the first Union regiment of black soldiers, and whose honorable service and ultimate sacrifices went shamefully ignored and disrespected.

If Trethewey’s lyrical writing is the driving force, the certifiable star of the Alliance show, to put it rather crassly, then Adam Larsen deserves equal billing for his illuminating media design, a beautiful tapestry of video projections and graphics that evoke a visual power to complement and enhance all the language.

As Trethewey deliberately blurs lines between the present and the past, Larsen’s work provides a sharply focused clarity that helps us distinguish between them and appreciate the differences (or the sad similarities). It also proves invaluable in helping Booth create a sense of perpetual motion for the piece — as an invigorating theatrical experience, when it could have felt like simply watching or listening to two actors standing around reciting a lot of great poetry.

Booth’s co-stars articulate the roles with profound conviction: New York-based actress January LaVoy, who previously appeared in Booth’s 2012 production of “What I Learned in Paris,” portrays the Poet; and longtime Georgia Shakespeare artistic associate Neal A. Ghant (newly billed here as Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant) embodies the Native Guard.

As though their strong performances (not to mention Larsen’s special effects again) were somehow not enough in transitioning “Native Guard” from page to stage, Booth’s inclusion of a few musical interludes seems arguably unnecessary. They’re very nicely sung by vocalist Nicole Banks Long (who played Mary Magdalene in Booth’s 2009 “Jesus Christ Superstar, Gospel”), accompanied on piano by music director Tyrone Jackson, but they tend to interrupt the play as much as they further it.

As adapted, the script runs about an hour. Throughout the show’s engagement, after each intermission, a different host will moderate an audience discussion about the themes and issues “Native Guard” explores. Luckily for those of us on opening night, Trethewey herself shared the responsibility with Alliance dramaturge Celise Kalke.

As conceived, some of the correlations between the Poet’s story and that of the Native Guard are slightly strained. And, while Booth’s scenes resonate with an earnest humanity, they don’t really build to a defining moment or an emotional climax like a traditional play. For me, at least (as a white man, perhaps), the show is more thought-provoking than heart-rending.

Even so, whether or not “Native Guard” constitutes a fully realized theatrical production, it’s surely the most elaborate and stunning poetry reading you’d ever want to see.

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