The Act of Killing

Firehouse’s world premiere documentary play “Memories of Overdevelopment” explores hope and survival in the face of dictatorship.

Though Katrinah Carol Lewis has been a near-constant presence on Richmond’s stages for years, “Memories of Overdevelopment” presents a drastically different acting challenge than one she’s encountered before.

Opening in its world premiere production at the Firehouse Theatre this week, the play melds live performance and both prerecorded and live video to create an immersive theater experience for audiences.

“It is a staged documentary about people who have fled from dictatorships, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also a study in what we remember, and how we remember things and how we proceed with trauma,” says Lewis, who stars in the show opposite Keaton Hillman. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen happen in Richmond before, this multimedia deconstruction of a documentary film that’s happening in real time.”

The play is inspired by interviews that playwright Caridad Svich conducted with family members, friends and strangers who lived under dictatorships. In an effort to go beyond the headlines and avoid getting bogged down in the particulars of a singular conflict, the global conflicts surrounding these accounts are purposefully kept vague in the show.

“It’s very important to the playwright that [dictatorships are] very much alive and very present and very possible under any political or economic structures,” says Nathaniel Shaw, the show’s director and the Firehouse’s producing artistic director. “We’re not able to say, ‘Oh, that’s from some other time and some other place, and that could never happen here.’”

The genesis of this production began when Shaw’s New Theatre did a staged reading of Svich’s play “Red Bike” in early 2022. Through that reading, Shaw began to develop a relationship with Svich, an accomplished playwright who won the 2012 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Katrinah Carol Lewis describes the play as “a study in what we remember, and how we remember things and how we proceed with trauma.” Photo by Scott Elmquist

“She shared ‘Memories of Overdevelopment’ with me, among some other plays, and it just leapt off the page for me as something very interesting and unique and a different kind of theatrical experience than any other I had seen,” says Shaw, whose New Theatre has since merged with the Firehouse; they’re producing this season under the banner “The New Theatre At Firehouse.” “You are watching a documentarian in real time conduct interviews with people who lived in those circumstances and then begin to piece together a documentary film of these very personal experiences.”

Upon entering the theater space, audience members will find themselves in the midst of the documentary as it’s being made.

“What the production asks for is a multimedia experience where you’re not only watching the interviews unfold in real time in person; you are also seeing the creation of the documentary film come to life, projected on the screens of the theater,” Shaw says. “In addition to that, that production element allows us to go into the memories and dreams of these characters, so it’s a very layered theatrical experience.”

Keaton Hillman in “Memories of Overdevelopment,” a play “inspired by interviews that playwright Caridad Svich conducted with family members, friends and strangers who lived under dictatorships.” Photo by Scott Elmquist

In the show, Lewis plays six different roles, including a dancer, a shopkeeper and a professor.

“All of these characters are very specific and very different, but the playwright was clear that she didn’t want us to do huge dialect work or big, huge character work,” Lewis says. “It becomes a global story about humanity.”

Overall, Lewis says the message of the show is one of forgiveness and letting go of vengeance.

“It’s a play about humanity and survival,” she says. “It’s a play about the horrible things that humans do to others, but it’s also about how people survive that. It’s also a meditation and a study about how people reconnect with their past and their trauma in the past.

“There’s a glimmer of hope, and it’s around our resiliency as people, and our ability to be with one another in a space and help heal trauma.”

“Memories of Overdevelopment” runs Feb. 7-25 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., 23220. For more information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call (804) 355-2001.

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