Dezi Solèy in PARTICIPANTS. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs


TheatreFirst at Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley

TheatreFirst at Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley
Through December 23, 2017

TheatreFirst has commissioned 12 enlivening and exhilarating short plays by outstanding playwrights that are designed to provoke thought, discussion and action. All the pieces in “Participants” share the didactic theme of exploring society’s reaction to our current social and political circumstances. The plays, in various ways, urge the spectators to take action, or at least, to discover a renewed awareness in societal problems. But that doesn’t subtract from “Participants’” overall entertainment value, with talented and earnest writing and top quality direction. And that’s not easy to do in ten minutes. The ensemble of skilled, outstanding actors gave first-rate performances. It was easy to see that their hearts were immersed in the project and in their characters.

From a funny and ironic scene of an old and dying Donald Trump being visited by the ghost of Roy Cohn (“Scenes from My Terrific Death” by Dipika Guha, directed by Susannah Martin) to a thoughtful, tightly written confrontation between a sophisticated African-American female supervisor and a disgruntled white male worker who wanted her job (“Eve and Steven” by Carl Lumbly, directed by Josh Costello), these brief dramas capture America’s current sticking points.

Stage and screen actor, activist, and author of “Eve and Steven,” Carl Lumbly, was in the audience when this writer attended “Participants.” He gave a meaningful talk about his play in which he seemed kindly sympathetic to the plight of the white male, who, in the past, expected all favors and preferences by right.

The performances about gender and race were particularly emphatic and resonant because of the winning combinations of writer, actor and director. “Living Proof” (by Skyler Cooper, directed by Mary Guzmán) about a transgender person’s issues, was heartfelt and powerful. “Take the Ticket” (by Star Finch, directed by Brit Frazier) about an African-American female playwright’s quandaries in her professional and personal life, was sadly illuminating.

TheatreFirst has abandoned its theatre venue for this event. Instead, the audience of only 50 members are seated in an assortment of chairs (first come, first served) along the periphery of a smaller room, while the actors perform in the room’s center. With 12 plays being performed over two and one-half hours (including one intermission) some are more memorable than others. In fact, 12 may be a bit too many for the audience to retain clearly over a long evening, especially while sitting on hard straight chairs.

At the end of the evening, the audience is given an activist organization contact list, along with the exhortation to get involved with them in some way. Participants strikes just the right note between entertainment and education, as befits TheatreFirst’s dedication to amplifying marginalized stories and telling them through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints.

This review first appeared on

By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for