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Q&A with Natsu Onoda Power

Our ReDiscovery Reading Series introduces audiences to new adaptations and great but lesser-known classic plays under consideration for STC’s mainstage seasons.  Natsu Onoda Power will direct our second ReDiscovery Reading, Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks. Natsu has worked extensively as a director and playwright in D.C., directing at Studio Theatre, Theater J and Mosaic Theater among others, and is an associate professor at Georgetown in Theater and Performance Studies. We spoke with Natsu about her experiences working in D.C. and her reflections about the play.

STC: Have you seen previous productions of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus? What draws you to this play?

NOP: I saw the original production directed by Richard Foreman at Yale Rep in 1996 by sheer coincidence. I was interviewing there for an internship position in scenic painting and they gave me a ticket to see it that night. It was one of my seminal experiences as a young student. I was most struck by the character of Venus — played powerfully with no tinge of victimhood or vulnerability. I also remember the tactile, old-fashioned spectacle, “vertical” bed, subversion of conventions (intermission interruption). Of course, I could be remembering it all wrong… it was a long time ago!

STC: What are some of the challenges posed by the work and by our reading it?

NOP: The play relies, I think, so much on the visual information and ensemble work — and at first I feared that a simple “reading” without any technical support (nor a lot of rehearsal time) wouldn’t allow the audience to understand the play properly. I have since convinced the folks at STC to add an impromptu percussionist to give the reading a sense of rhythm and aural-spectacle. I have gathered a group of student volunteers to work with the percussionist prior to the reading at STC. We will see how it turns out! It will be a little adventure.

STC: What has your process and journey been like since you were asked to direct this reading at STC?

NOP: Ironically, I responded skeptically with a question about the choice of me as a director — of course I was honored to be asked, but I thought there might be others who would be better qualified: shouldn’t a young female African American director be given the opportunity? But the team at STC assured me that they did a thorough search, and the choice was dependent on people’s availability, style, etc. Then I was completely shocked to learn that this play had not been professionally produced in D.C. I think a reading is a great opportunity for more people to hear the play.

STC: Our guest speaker for this reading is your Georgetown colleague, Soyica Diggs Colbert, a professor in the Departments of African American Studies and Theater & Performance Studies. Have you had any conversations about Venus with Soyica? What has come up?

NOP: Soyica and I have been a team for some time, as we have worked side by side as the Chair of the department (Soyica) and the Artistic Director of the Performing Arts Center (me). I have unequivocal respect for her as a scholar, educator and colleague. We have fantasized about working together on a creative project, so this is a treat. We were drinking wine at my house the other day and I expressed my anxiety about directing the reading as a non-African American woman. Soyica assured me “I’ll make it up for you because I am ‘extra’ black!”  She was joking — and referring to her expertise, having written extensively on this play — but it is something to think about. We often become “professional representers of one’s identity” in our work, which both empowers and entraps us. Intimate and rigorous collaboration could be the answer to the dilemma of cultural authenticity, style, and artistic experimentation.

STC: As a theater maker in D.C. and also a professor at Georgetown, what do you enjoy about working and being an educator here?

NOP: My students are amazing. They surprise and inspire me every day. I honestly wouldn’t be the theater maker I am today if I weren’t teaching. Georgetown students have such diverse interests that they bring into classrooms and rehearsal rooms, and are driven powerfully by leadership and social justice. Instead of asking the question “what is the purpose of theater?”, they seem to ask the question “what purposes can we use theater for?”

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