Roan @ the Gates is a patriotic love story of two righteous women who are torn between their relationship and their principles. Roan (Brenda Barrie), an NSA analyst, puts everything on the line when she leaks government documents to an international reporter. Roan flees to Russia, and her wife Nat (Jasmine Bracey) is left blindsided and an ocean away. The Chicago premiere of Christina Telesca Gormans’ cyberfiction is much closer to reality than one might hope. In 75 minutes, director Lexi Saunders documents a deteriorating marriage with stunning design and intimate performances. As the conflict builds and communication breaks away, however, the narrative falls into a loop where the same argument is played out again and again.
At the top of the play, we get a taste of the couple’s relationship dynamic for the past 11 years. Nat, an empowered and opinionated civil rights attorney, is the fighter of the two. Roan is quieter, finding security in her wife’s arms. This dynamic quickly turns when Roan shatters their shared comfort zone and Nat’s role is challenged. Brenda Barrie perfectly captures Roan’s total transformation. She displays calm under unmatched pressure, a stark difference from the nauseated woman we meet in the first scene. Nat, on the other hand, clumsily adjusts to her new role. She constantly tries to regain control and can’t secure a foothold. Jasmine Bracey contains this internal conflict with grace until it ultimately overwhelms her in a satisfying final confrontation. Barrie and Bracey find a compelling connection that expands beyond the intimate performance space.
The show’s geometric and feminine design is emblematic of the relationship on stage. Elements are concealed behind the surface, and the stage is changed forever once they are revealed. Scenic design by Sarah E. Ross creates a complicated physical world that reflects the show’s central conflict. With warm wood paneling and sharp metallic angles, this set is a design at war with itself in the most brilliant way. The digital world permeates the physical space with lighting design by Jared Gooding. As Roan and Nat grow further apart, the digital landscape becomes their only meeting place. But even then, their communication fractures. Costume designer Lily Walls helps the actors move quickly through time and place with uncomplicated yet detailed clothing choices.
Repetitive communication breakdown between the two characters drags down the play’s momentum. When they come together, whether in person or over video chat, Roan and Nat have the same conversation. And it’s staged almost the same way each time. They have a romantic reconnection followed by a fight about their future, which then drops back down with a declaration of love. New revolutions are made, but these fights follow the same physical progression. The two characters continuously struggle to say what they really mean, and the heart of the conflict only comes to light in final moments. While a thrilling choice from the playwright, this structure poses an obstacle for the director. Director Lexi Saunders choreographs intimate connection, but the same patterns found scene to scene don’t help to elevate these beautiful moments.
The powerful script by Christina Telesca Gorman is a contemporary look at love and the price of freedom. Roan leaks government documents that reveal NSA efforts to mine the personal data of American citizens in the name of national security. The events detailed on stage are not far from reality. Just think back to 2013, when Edward Snowden changed the way American’s think about privacy in a digitized world. As shocking as those revelations were, 2020 data collection makes personal privacy virtually impossible. Clearview AI, a secretive tech company, has developed a facial recognition software that identifies indirect images. Their app has been used by law enforcement agencies, private companies, and even the NSA. American Blues Theatre’s production of Roan @ the Gates is a timely story that will have you asking yourself: what are you willing to sacrifice for your freedoms?
Brenda Barrie, Roan
Jasmine Bracey, Nat
Christina Telesca Gorman, Playwright
Lexi Saunders, Director
Sarah E. Ross, Scenic Design
Jared Gooding, Lighting Design
Lily Walls, Costumes
Eric Backus, Composer/Sound Design
Amanda Barth, Props Design
Charlie Baker, Intimacy Choreographer
Shandee Vaughan, Production & Stage Manager
Michael Brosilow, Photographer