Priyanka Shetty, the writer and performer of this one-hour solo play about the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, tells us early on that she decided to interview residents of the city where she was living because “I wanted to understand what happened here. I wanted to understand why it happened here. I wanted to understand everything about Charlottesville, before it turned into a hashtag.”
These are all well-meaning goals, but whether or not she achieved them personally, “#Charlottesville” itself is less enlightening for the audience than it could have been.
“#Charlottesville” is one of the nine plays in 59E59 Theater’s “East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual 2021,” a festival running from July 15 to July 25 whose aim is to showcase what the theater bills as “Fringe-worthy” plays. That’s a double-edged claim to anyone who has attended a Fringe festival, and knows how uneven and amateurish the shows can be.
Shetty is skilled at doing the voices of the real-life characters she portrays, there are some chilling incidents effectively recounted and a number of insightful comments from the characters. But these are undermined by her overacting. Even the underscore is overdramatic.
To be fair, I might have felt better about Shetty’s play had I never seen the solo documentary theater of Anna Deavere Smith with which to compare it. Smith set the gold standard (perhaps invented the genre) in such plays as “Fires In the Mirror,” “Twilight: Los Angeles,” and “Let Me Down Easy.” Each was a dramatization of a contentious event or issue, for which Smith spent years interviewing the people involved on all sides, both prominent and peripheral figures, and worked hard to reproduce their speech almost scientifically, down to their every “um” and “you know.” She then presented a selection of these characters, using their full names and identities, in such a way that the audience feels grounded in the basics of the story, while the plays also convey the characters’ competing attitudes and values, presented without judgement.
Shetty barely gives us the basics of the story – how the city of Charlottesville had decided to take down its statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in response to the church killings by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina two years earlier, which led the alt-right to organize a rally ostensibly in protest.
Shetty only fully identifies just one of the real-life characters she interviewed and portrays, the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when a white supremacist protester drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. (I didn’t actually hear Shetty say the mother’s name, Susan Bro.) This was the highlight of the piece – Bro’s account of that day and of her grief is moving, and her observations striking (“It’s not really fair that she got all of the attention for dying…She’s not the first person to die because of hate. She got that attention for dying because she’s a white girl.” ) But, again, it would have been even more effective had Shetty dialed down the weeping.
I discerned little to no effort to get all sides. Why don’t we hear, for example, from a city official who could explain why the city permitted the rally? We only hear from an unnamed counter-protester who complains that city officials knew the right-wing protesters were talking about bringing weapons to the rally, yet still let it proceed.
The attempt in “#Charlottesville” to explore this disturbing 2017 event is exactly the kind of undertaking that theater can and should be doing. Priyanka Shetty deserves praise for taking it on.