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Friday, 01 December 2023 11:56

A Legacy Lives On: Oil & Sugar

Written by  Zachary Avery
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"Oil and Sugar" at Actors' Theatre Grand Rapids. "Oil and Sugar" at Actors' Theatre Grand Rapids. Photo by Sensitography

On May 10 of this year, a beloved theatre arts practitioner, professor and director passed away. His name was Randy Wyatt, and besides acting as an indescribable force for positive good in his local community, from initiating Aquinas College’s Theatre for Social Change program to advocating for accountability during the Flint water crisis through “The Water Project,” he had also received renown as a regional playwright. For the first time ever, an unproduced work of his, Oil and Sugar, will be receiving its world premiere at Actors’ Theatre.

“This is the story of someone who’s been deeply wronged, who’s never had control of who she is,” said Scott Harman, director. “Inque is trying to discover who she is in real-time while everybody else is still trying to tell her who to be.”

As Harman’s directorial debut with Actors’ Theatre, leading Oil and Sugar certainly seems like a daunting task. Though the show only calls for five actors, its tense emotional beats and complex relationships leave a lot of room for interpretation among the production team and performers. With Inque on her journey toward self-advocacy and independence, how do the important connections in her life respond? And what sorts of roadblocks are laid out for her, some resulting from larger injustices in her past?

“Inque is the center of gravity of the play, and we have these other fully fleshed out people who have their own relationships that develop along the way,” Harman said. “But, it’s Inque’s solar system, and there are some pretty compelling planets in it.”

One such planet is Tanya, played by Linnae Caurdy. Her role as Inque’s therapist lends a unique perspective on our main character’s experience, one different from her husband Michael (who has his own ideas of how to help Inque). Caurdy is no novice when it comes to interpreting Wyatt’s work, having performed under his direction in Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play in 2016, also at Actors’ Theatre. She felt they both understood what theatre’s effect on our community could be and was later invited to direct a production at Aquinas College during Wyatt’s 12 year tenure as its theatre program director.

“I would consider him one of my Grand Rapids mentors,” Caurdy said. “He was innovative, passionate and wanted to break boundaries and push buttons in the best way.”

Wyatt did this more often than not through his capacity as the script supervisor for Actors’ Theatre, where he pulled in new plays and advocated for the board to do more difficult, progressive works of theatre. One standout was his direction for Jennifer Haley’s The Nether in 2017, a story investigating a not-too-distant future virtual reality where disturbing acts of violence and debauchery are acted out by anonymous users. In Wyatt’s own original work, he recalls experiences and lessons learned from his own life, such as his critical glance into evangelical Christianity in Harmony, another world premiere from Actors’ Theatre in 2009. Similar to that script, the people we meet in Oil and Sugar are mysterious and contradictory, making impulsive judgements very similar to how regular, irrational humans often act.

“All of the characters are flawed, like we all are,” said Michael Empson, playing Inque’s husband Michael. “None of them are what they seem on the surface, and every single one of them could be taken in a million different directions and still be truthful to the script.”

When nearly at the halfway mark of this production’s rehearsal process, its performers were still discovering more about their characters, the play’s wider message and Wyatt’s unique artistic voice as a playwright. For all of them, this intimate exploration into the script brought up many memories from their time working with Wyatt. One such individual was Bryanna Lee, who plays the show’s lead, Inque. A favorite memory of hers was Wyatt’s impressive feat of incorporating over 45 community actors in the Aquinas College Theatre Department’s production of Love and Information, an experimental work comprised mostly of raw dialogue without clear designation of who’s speaking and which “characters” are even involved. This deviation from classic American theatre and into contemporary art was a hallmark of Wyatt’s teaching style.

“[Wyatt] was so excited about it,” Lee said. “Being able to have that Aquinas theatre community and be so welcomed by that, it was the best.”

The connections Wyatt laid out and helped establish in the local theatre community are still felt today, irregardless of when someone might’ve crossed paths with him. He was a friend to anyone who knew him well enough to see the incredible artistic spirit and dreamer that he was, and as a college professor he left an indelible impact on his institution.

“I now sit in [Wyatt’s] old office at Aquinas College, and now I get to direct this show,” Harman said. “I’ve been the beneficiary of a baton getting handed to me saying, ‘Here’s how this is going—your turn,’ which is terrifying and exciting. Now we get to honor the work by making it our own.”

Come visit Actor’s Theatre for their world premiere of this fortunate, beautiful reminder of the mark left behind by one of Grand Rapids’ most cherished artists, Randy Wyatt.

Oil and Sugar
Actors’ Theatre
160 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Dec. 7-16
actorstheatregrandrapids.org

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