Philly playwright Tuomanen pulls threads of connection and political awakening through works

Mary Tuomanen opens “Hello! Sadness!” at FringeArts in Old City, on a stage with no set, no props, and no other performers. “No systemic oppression, no experts, no history,” she says. “This is where you can clarify your relationship with the divine if you just let yourself go.”

“Hello. Welcome. You’re all here. You all made your way to the corner of Race Street and Delaware Avenue. You came to this dark room. You’re totally safe here. We’re safe.”

Mary Tuomanen opens “Hello! Sadness!” at FringeArts in Old City, on a stage with no set, no props, and no other performers. She is accompanied only by a large screen, on which images and video will appear for her to interact with. But not until later; in the opening she establishes the theater as an empty space of pure potential.

“No systemic oppression, no experts, no history,” she says, twirling. “This is where you can clarify your relationship with the divine if you just let yourself go.”

Tuomanen is a petite actress with a boyish figure, such that she can get away with playing Hamlet, which she did a few years ago. She also bears a striking resemblance to the 1960s expatriate actress Jean Seberg, whose screen career began by playing Joan of Arc. Seberg was harassed by the FBI for her support of the ACLU and the Black Panther Party, which may have led to her suicide in 1979.

Tuomanen plays all of these characters, and then some, threaded together in a performance tracing a radical political awakening. She says all of them are versions of herself, at a moment when she is trying to figure out how to affect change in the world.

She often feels, like Hamlet, not equipped to deal with a world falling apart.

“You’re just some neurotic kid, you went to college or whatever, now you have to go out and perform a political assassination. Go!” said Tuomanen. “All of us would act like Hamlet: ‘Wha?! Huh?!’ It’s especially close to home because what Hamlet decides to do is put on a stupid play. He’s, like, ‘I’ve got an idea: I’ll put on a play!’ How dumb is that?”

Tuomanen has, in fact, created three plays. The first (“Marcus/Emma”) is an imagined relationship between two radical activists — Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman. It is produced by Interact Theatre Company, opening this week at the Drake Theater at the same time “Hello! Sadness!” opens at FringeArts.

The third play, “Peaceable Kingdom,” will be about the challenges of sustaining a utopian community, populated by the animals appearing in the famous folk painting by Edward Hicks. That will open this spring at Christ Church Neighborhood House, produced by Orbiter 3.

At the core of each play is a very personal, sometimes intimate, unease that reverberates with much larger social and political issues.

“I’ve spent a lot of time upset I can’t fix the world. I think we wish we had more power,” said Tuomanen. “What is the slow grind, the long-game fight, and how do we prepare ourselves as soldiers for that fight in order to learn how to love each other better? All these plays center around that.”

“Hello! Sadness!” has no set pieces because, in part, the script is nimble, hop-scotching at the speed of thought from 15th century France, to 1960s Chicago, to Paris of the mid-century Nouvelle Vague, to the theft of Joan of Arc’s wax head from a rural French museum, to a wildly offensive stand-up comedy routine.

There is a storyline connecting everything, but mostly Tuomanen is attempting to make a point by tying together people and events across time and space.

“Because we’re talking about connections of many different threads, it must be complicated,” said Tuomanen. “The systems of oppression work to keep us separate from one another.”

“Hello! Sadness!” was originally performed in 2015 as part of the Kimmel Center’s theater residency program. Tuomanen says this new production has been changed slightly in reaction to political changes in America since then.

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