The Aliens | eggNYMPH Artist Collective | Videri Chocolate Factory, Raleigh | Friday, Mar. 31–Saturday, Apr. 1
Director Nathalie Ray kept getting the same reaction as she shared her copy of the Obie Award–winning play The Aliens with friends: creatives like her, most in their twenties, who’d gotten out of college and were now trying to make their mark in theater, film, or video production in the region. “Everyone seemed to really connect with it,” she says of the work, which marks the first production this weekend from a new company, eggNYMPH Artist Collective.
“They kept telling me, ‘I know these people.’ And they all had a specific example—one of these characters they felt like they know in real life.”
In some cases, that knowledge cuts uncomfortably close to home. Both KJ and Jasper, the disaffected central characters in the 2010 drama by MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient Annie Baker, are right around the age of 30. Both have had trouble checking some of the boxes that our culture says are prerequisites for adulthood: KJ was a bright student who dropped out of college in the wake of a mental health crisis, while Jasper—the friend they had an erstwhile band with—never graduated from high school.
These days, Jasper is working on a novel, or at least he is when he’s not hanging out with KJ at their usual place: the patio where we meet them, behind a neighborhood coffee shop, where they grouse about the world and quote Charles Bukowski, going nowhere fast.
A third character interrupts the scruffy, outcast café society: nerdy, beleaguered Evan, a high schooler who’s a new hire at the coffeehouse. After they can’t get KJ and Jasper to stop loitering, Evan starts to regard the pair as older, wiser sages from the counterculture.
“We know these people,” Ray says of the characters in The Aliens. “They themselves feel like they don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, and yet they impart so much knowledge at the same time. It’s a very interesting dichotomy.”
Why are the experiences of two alienated characters resonating so deeply among the twentysomethings with whom Ray has shared the work?
Answer the question this way: When’s the last time you saw a work about them performed on any stage in this region? Ray doesn’t fully subscribe to how generational groups are characterized, but she’s reached some conclusions from her own experiences and those of the people she knows in her age range, born between the early 1990s and 2000s, on the cusp between the millennial and Gen Z group demographics.
“We’re all sort of searching for the next thing,” Ray says. “We’re trying to stay hungry, but also a little bit exhausted, and a little bit angry—even if,” she laughs, “we’re not always really sure at who.” If The Aliens seems laid-back at first, she says, “there’s an emotional undercurrent that’s present in a lot of the real conversations I have.”
Ray’s late-twenties cohort is well aware of the myriad film and television works that talk about them. They’re also quite clear on the much smaller number that are talking to them—and the fewer still that seem interested in listening.
Though company cofounder and filmmaker Meghan Everly Kuder spends a lot of time scrutinizing media, “what it comes down to is that I don’t see a lot of art out there that speaks to me,” she says. “It’s still very homogenous. A lot of times, the voices being heard are still not people from those communities.”
So Kuder, Ray, and their colleagues are raising theirs. eggNYMPH, the new collective they’ve formed with filmmaker David Ray, is devoted to interdisciplinary works including theater and film. It’s also devoted to greater integrity in representations of their generation’s challenges.
“We don’t like to acknowledge that people go to school for two years, don’t get a degree, end up in a lot of debt, and never go back,” says actor Ashlyn Parsons. “People have full-on mental health crises, which we don’t like to acknowledge, especially not in students.”
Nor do these artists find it helpful when dramatists monumentalize or melodramatize such subject matter. “It’s too easy to bring up representations of mental health issues in extreme and very problematic ways,” Kuder says.
None of Baker’s works have gone that route. Indeed, they’ve been criticized at times because they’re anything but sensationalist. Her plays have few big reveals and fewer moments that change everything. But how often do these actually happen in any of our lives? With Baker, we spend time with human-sized characters, who are working through and making incremental discoveries, here and there, about their lives.
“It’s much more grounded than other representations,” Kuder says. Baker’s characters “are just people. And they have issues, and stuff that’s going on. That’s where I think the clarity of it comes in.”
The Aliens finds that clarity “very naturally,” Parsons says. “Having the opportunity to have that part of the world reflected back at you, with that kind of honesty—for some people, it will feel comforting. Being real about it, and having characters that reflect people you maybe don’t see every day, is still an important thing for anybody to see.”
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