After 18 months unable to hold fully in-person mainstage performances, E.C. Mabie Theatre is opening doors to an audience eager to see live theater again — this time with the play, Our Lady of 121st Street.
The play begins after a group of students from Harlem hear the news that their former teacher, Sister Rose, has died. The students return to their hometown to pay their respects and honor their feared and beloved teacher’s life. After coming to 121st Street in Harlem, New York to attend her funeral, however, Sister Rose’s body goes missing, and the students must also deal with the loss of her physical body, and work through the differences of their individual lives.
Our Lady of 121st Street begins Friday, under the direction of Mary Beth Easley, who serves as chair of the Theatre Department as and the head of directing. Easley described viewing the play as a way to bring together all of Iowa City’s diverse communities — the play includes voices of white, Latina/o/x, Black, and disabled characters to accurately reflect the diversity of Harlem.
“It is also a play about moving forward, and redemption,” Easley said. “I think a lot of what we’ve been through in the last year and a half, we all feel like we do need to move forward and release the trauma we have experienced.”
COVID-19 effectively shut down many theaters, and the drama industry as a whole, across the world for some time. Easley said her graduate students had fellowships and internships that were entirely canceled, although she believes that all theater students know how to adjust with the changes.
“I was booked out [for] the next seven to eight months. I knew what shows I was doing and all of that just halted,” said Katie Gucik, UI first year MFA actor. “It was this big question of, ‘When will we be able to be in person again, doing what we love?’”
Gucik said she cried when she entered the theater for the first time and stepped on a stage again after a long 18 months. As it is one of the first live theatre productions back at the UI since COVID-19, Gucik said she felt grateful to be a part of Our Lady of 121st Street.
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Gucik plays the role of Marcia, the niece of Sister Rose. She described her character as an outsider to the rest of the cast because she is a relative rather than a student. The play alludes to Marcia being the only family member left of Sister Rose’s, so she must be there as next of kin, Gucik said.
Dakari Harleston, an undergraduate theater student at UI, plays the role of Flip. He said his character’s struggles are deeper and more internal than some of the others, since Flip is a closeted gay man who looked to Sister Rose as a motherly figure.
Our Lady of 121st Street is Harleston’s first mainstage show. He said learning from the director and graduate students in the play has helped shape him into the actor he is today. Though, he added, the experience itself has been a big learning curve.
“I can’t wait to see the different reactions and look into the crowd and see the energy that is going to be there,” Harleston said. “I’m just really happy to get this experience and opportunity to be here.”
Gucik said that the connection between the audience and the actors is not the same when theater is not live, and she is excited to have a reconnection.
“I think [the audience] should look forward to recognizing themselves on stage,” Gucik said. “And being transported to this world to really be immersed in the world of these characters.”
Our Lady of 121st Street is written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Performances begin Friday, Oct. 8 and run through Oct. 16 in the E.C. Mabie Theatre. Tickets can be purchased through the Hancher box office.