This story has been updated with a new venue and times.
While they’ve produced many scripted plays in their 15 years of existence, the unapologetically feminist theater company Looking for Lilith may be better known for creating devised works, original pieces of theater based on interviews and research. The devised works always tackle an aspect of social justice, women’s history, lifting up unheard voices, or a some combination of the three.
This time, instead of examining a historic event like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or feminism in the 1960s, they’re tackling what it’s like to be in America here and now.
“We. Are. Here.” looks at the endless stream of debate and invective in America, dealing with diverse topics — white privilege, immigration, anti-blackness — and the stereotypes, both positive and negative, are all put under the stage lights.
Kathi E.B. Ellis, the production’s director, spoke with Insider, along with cast member Jo Volar, who also is an immigrant from Venezuela.
Ellis talked about the play’s conception.
“At a retreat … we were trying to wrap our head around the huge social currents that are happening in this country at the moment,” she said.
They decided to use the skills they’ve honed for 15 years and devise a play grappling with their questions and the issues of today’s America. They began by narrowing down the number of issues they wanted to address, and giving those issues a focus.
“For example, Jo’s character is part of our immigrant family, and that family started out with the stereotype of the ‘lazy immigrant.’ And, of course, that is anything but true, but it was a starting place,” said Ellis.
From that starting place, the devising team asked questions like: Why does that stereotype exist? What do the people who believe that stereotype do and say? How do people who are the targets of these stereotypes refute those negative images?
Volar, who didn’t become interested in acting until she lived in Louisville, is in America legally, but she plays Isabelle, one of the so-called “Dreamers,” so she had to work to understand Isabelle’s plight. As a native Spanish speaker, Volar also had to do that work in a second language.
“It has been playing a lot with my own brain, my own accent, with my ability to communicate in another language … it has been amazing also to connect with,” she said. “These stories might be different from mine, but they belong to the Latino community, something so real, from this moment in this country.”
Though Isabelle is very integrated into American society, she still struggles against stereotypes and the pervasiveness of white privilege.
Battling stereotypes in the white community isn’t the only difficulty Isabelle faces.
“Isabelle is a teenager, and she is in love with her boyfriend, who is black, which is a problem to a certain group in her family,” explained Volar. “And there’s a weird disparity right there that she has with her family. At the same time, she is defending the Latino culture, she’s defending the black culture, she’s defending her boyfriend, she’s defending her mom — everybody. She’s trying to get the right representation, because she knows the truth behind all these ignorant comments.”
There is a struggle within Isabelle, too, as she feels pressure to be an advocate and model for the entire Latino community.
“She also encourages her mother to prepare herself and be ready to confront situations like that, like ignorance, bigotry, in different common spaces in life,” Volar said.
In the devising process, as all the characters were interacting with strangers and strange ideas, Lilith’s devisers started to look to another hot-button topic: social media.
Ellis talked about how the play addresses the effects of social media and the pervasiveness of cell phones.
“We filter some of the hot-button issues and events that get a knee-jerk reaction through characters engaging with social media, so it has become a theatrical convention to have cell phones present throughout the piece, and there are sequences that overtly embrace how we receive information from social media,” said Ellis.
The onstage social media helps “We. Are. Here.” engage with a variety of topics, just like people who come across diverse topics on Facebook every day.
“(‘We. Are. Here.’) is not one theme or story, it’s completely across the board, and in terms of the way Lilith works, I don’t remember another play that has had this much presentness about it,” said Ellis.
“We. Are. Here.” runs from June 18 to 24 at Bellarmine University’s Black Box Theater. Tickets are $21, or $16 for students.
(The play was originally supposed to be held at the Kentucky Center, but due to Wednesday’s fire, it has been relocated.)