Arts and Entertainment Editor
Over the course of the past year and a half, the Twin Cities has undergone a series of earth-shattering events: the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing question of where we go from here. For some time, these dire circumstances have stifled the release and attendance of live theatre. Now, as vaccination rates have skyrocketed in Minneapolis, such events will make a swift, albeit cautious, return.
One particular play, presented by Theatre Underground at the Whitney Fine Arts Center, is taking the opportunity to bring questions about local race relations into the spotlight. “Moved by Providence,” written by Marcia McMullen, tells the story of a white student named Libby. As she reluctantly leaves Minneapolis for the western suburbs, Libby meets Zelda—a shaman and Black business owner on Lake Street. Libby believes their meeting is an act of providence, but Zelda challenges her on this idea and the two of them venture forth on a quest for truth and enlightenment. Ultimately, the play asks its audience about the nature of “providence.” Is it indeed divine? If so, how deeply involved is it in the course of human events?
The title and primary theme of the play stems from the William H. Murray quote “that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves.” Such a statement contradicts a common notion of providence, akin to bullets flying past Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, in favor of something more personal. Providence, rather than being another word for “divine intervention,” is simply the good fortune that results from individual effort. McMullen restates this more succinctly: “When we commit to something, all things stream in to help us so that we can move forward in our goal.”
McMullen’s play has been repeatedly developed after winning Metropolitan State’s 2020 playwriting contest and in the wake of recent turmoil in Minneapolis, particularly the death of George Floyd. What began as a short play expanded into a full-length production as McMullen’s perspective began to widen during last year’s infamous summer.
Gail Smogard, director of “Moved by Providence,” explains the stages of development surrounding the script, highlighting how important it was for McMullen to witness these events unfold. “Students write from their own experience,” she said. “We can teach you a lot about the technique of writing plays, but we can’t make it credible. You can make it credible by writing what you know.”
Both Smogard and McMullen attribute the overall strength of the project to the diversity of the campus and those who come from different backgrounds with different stories to tell. Touching on what McMullen describes as “living in our collective culture right now,” the intentions behind the play are to have audience members “see a part of themselves” and “move in and not move back with any more defensiveness.” As such, Smogard and McMullen have been open to suggestions from both actors and stage managers regarding the content of the play.
A retrospective of American history also has a part in this play. The word “providence” is indeed written in the fabric of this nation. The closing words of the Declaration of Independence champion “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” As the United States nears its 250th year, McMullen claims, “There is a healing that needs to happen in America.” She believes this play is an opportunity to examine the role of justice in America and what power individuals can possess in the face of systemic injustice.
McMullen and Smogard hope that, rather than preach, the play will pose challenging questions that will give each member of the audience a chance to come out of the show thinking differently about how race affects life in the United States. From this sentiment, two questions remain: How much will they be moved by the play, and how much will they be moved by providence?
“Moved by Providence” will be performed on the Whitney Fine Arts Mainstage on the following dates/times: Nov. 12, 13, 18, 19 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. Admission is free. No tickets or reservations necessary. Audiences are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the food shelf. Masks are required for audience members, and social distancing measures will be in place.