‘Black Sky’ premieres at School of Dramatic Arts

(From left to right) Playwright Amanda Andrei, actors Mary Zhang, Nicole Havin, Vanessa Diego, Casey Gardner, Isabela Penagos and director Rena Heinrich carry SDA’s performance of “Black Sky.” (Photo courtesy of Craig Schwartz)

Though “Black Sky” opens with a nearly bare stage, displaying a lone telephone pole with a spider web of orange electric cables running outward from it into the rafters, this world is unbelievably complex. The characters in this new School of Dramatic Arts production are dealing with serious, complex issues — sometimes with life-or-death stakes — and have nothing but each other to rely on for support. Accompanied with minimal set design, the world is created by the play’s five female leads and the openness they bring to their characters.

These women are students Isabela Penagos (who plays KHawk), Nicole Havin (Violet), Casey Gardner (Diesel), Mary Zhang (Jana) and Vanessa Diego (Sachi). Each of them played a vital role in the process of developing the script and creating these characters alongside playwright Amanda Andrei and director, Rena Heinrich.

“Black Sky,” which premiered Friday, is the first of two plays in the School of Dramatic Arts’ New Works Festival, which began last weekend. The festival was designed to lend MFA Dramatic Writing candidates, like Andrei, the opportunity to workshop and refine their work by putting on a bare-bones production of it.

“For New Works, it’s kind of an interesting process, just because everything is really constantly changing and flowing as things progress,” said actor Casey Gardner, a sophomore majoring in theatre.

Both Gardner and fellow cast member Mary Zhang, a sophomore majoring in theatre, said it was rewarding to work so closely with the writer and director and to be able to ask questions and openly share their thoughts, which were often implemented into newer versions of the script.

Set in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia in a paramilitary program for young girls, a freak electrical storm strikes as the team repairs an electrical grid, causing major injuries and stirring tensions within the team.

“All of us have such unique character background stories but [the cast] comes together really well with this beautiful story,” Zhang said. “A lot of the play is about nature versus technology, and when technology takes over, it’s really easy to lose that humanity and the things that come out of genuine human connections.”

Despite the tense conflict presented in this play, humanity was one thing that was certainly not lost. The characters — with distinct sets of traits and complex problems and who struggle in relationships with each other and on their own as they strive both for independence and connection — embody empathy and sacrifice for one another. These characters are imperfect, but the simultaneous strength and vulnerability the actors brought to their portrayals are what made them so compelling to watch.

While the minimal set and technical elements allowed for the story and the words to be featured prominently, it didn’t hinder the actors from effectively telling the story. A few stone set pieces were placed in different configurations that instantly transported the audience to different locations.

The world’s sound designed by Alma Reyes-Thomas, an independent sound designer who often works on USC’s productions, filled in the rest of the technical shortcomings by conveying what the set could not: a loud sizzling to indicate they were only a few feet away from a massive electrical grid, sudden silence as the power was turned off, a massive explosion somewhere off-stage.

Set in an unknown and ambiguous future time period, the play required the actors to create futuristic world with new and established norms that the audience could latch onto and believe in.

The playwright, however, did not belittle her audiences by over-explaining the parameters of the world. Instead, she incorporated elements of this futuristic society into the play and trusted the audience to eventually catch on. The characters often spoke in text-speak, spelling out “i-d-k” and “w-t-f,” and used terms like “blue” to mean cool or good, and “sad mad bad” as part of their commonplace speaking. This suggested a world not too different from our own, but one in which customs and practices have evolved.  

Raising questions about what the future looks like for young women, the central themes revolved around a woman’s autonomy over her body and the basic human need to connect. Gardner expressed her respect for the way the play normalizes all aspects of the female body, which are often skimmed over or ignored.

“There’s so much going on in this world especially in the future where technology could be taking over,” Zhang said. “Know that at the end, it comes back to the connections you make with the people around you.”