Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc to English speakers) (1412-1431) holds a singular place of admiration in world history. She is revered by French people for her military leadership, while still a teenager, in lifting the Siege of Orléans and turning the tide against England during the Hundred Years War. Burned at the stake by enemies and declared a martyr by allies, she was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for having been inspired by religious visions and for her fight against Protestant invaders. She represents a role model for authority to feminists and to women in general for her ability to command men in battle and for her unwavering courage and determination against great odds. But were her visions and her resulting brief period of triumph a result of psychological instability – massive delusion?
Playwright Lisa Ramirez draws on Jean d’Arc’s motive force as the basis for examining the will of young women to effect change in today’s frightening world. Her vehicle is a riveting, uber-energetic, often chaotic and confrontational clash of five young people one fateful night. “sAiNt jOaN” grabs the attention by the throat and throttles it for 60 exciting and exhausting minutes.
The setup occurs on the night of a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland. In the tumult of violence and police chase, many protesters escape if possible. Sabra (played by Daniela Cervantes) is of Guatemalan heritage. Her mother works in a devotional candle jar factory nearby, and Sabra has the code to enter the building, where she and her Chinese-Jewish girlfriend May (Charlotte Ling Levy) take refuge. During the melee, two strangers, African-American sisters Bell (Success Ufondu) and Angie (Metsehafe Eyob) are allowed in. Finally, a non-binary who identifies as Jean Dark (Romeo Channer) insinuates themself into the mix. But did Jean even know where they were or why the protest? Perhaps they missed taking their meds. What ensues is a night of personal confrontations and empathy and learning.
A theatergoer might be understandably leary of a new work about teenagers and acted by ingénues, especially a play that attempts to catch the spark of a moment in time. But Director Michael Socrates Moran lets out all the stops in facilitating the actors’ emotional rage, and they respond with raw and totally convincing portrayals. Issues that are often carefully soft-pedalled in real life are blasted at megaphone volume.
Each of the characters carries the burden of a minority status that suffers under the dominance of a largely unsympathetic majority. Their having come from an event with a mutually shared objective, the expectation would be for a Kumbaya moment. But even the core singularity of the protest is challenged. Although the vacuous counterclaim that “White Lives Matter” is clearly an attempt to invalidate “Black Lives Matter,” what about the plight of Latinx? Sabra raises the provocation that “Brown Lives Matter,” but can that doctrine exist in harmony with the goals of the Black community? The tempestuous Bell is briefly silenced by the idea.
The complicated quest for united action by youth, who are clearly concerned with the future of their society, is evidenced by fractures within. (In the real world, such internal divisions have weakened the organization of the “Me, Too” movement.) Although May suffers discrimination from being both Chinese and Jewish, others in the group lack sympathy as they consider Chinese to be the model minority and Jews to be privileged. Add that May is focused on environmental issues and that she has an important relative whom the protesters would consider an enemy. Despite being presumed transgender, the white Jean fails to gain sympathy on an ad locum basis. Jean is from tony Piedmont. Through it all, Bell in her stridency sees the world through a race-based prism, although the more moderate and laid-back Angie tries to lower the temperature. The group even argues over the value of various social media platforms, which Jean rejects the use of altogether.
Yet as morning breaks, there is cause for hope. Is it possible that youth can agree on a common agenda of non-competing issues to embrace? Maybe the mere exposure to people of different backgrounds and to their ideas has produced bonding. Perhaps even Jean will be accepted and join the movement. Perhaps like her inspiration, Jean will lead future battles.
“sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn),” a world premiere is written by Lisa Ramirez, produced by Oakland Theater Project, and plays at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA through December 19, 2021.