Here’s a pop culture riddle for you: What does Kanye West have in common with 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen?
The Justice Theater Project — the Triangle’s ambitious performing arts initiative — hopes to answer that question when it kicks off its new season with an original adaptation of Ibsen’s most famous play, “A Doll’s House.”
With its new contemporary look, set about five minutes into the future, Ibsen’s tale takes on new significance as “A Doll’s House, Remodeled,” an original adaptation by Triangle playwrights JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Aurelia Belfield. Originally set in a Norwegian town circa 1880, the play has been updated to address social media, reality TV and the #MeToo movement.
Holloway-Burrell, who also directs the new production, said those familiar with the original play are in for a surprise.
“We have made some significant changes,” she said with a laugh.
A little bit of history: When “A Doll’s House” first premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, the play shocked audiences with its depiction of a married woman, Nora, who throws off society’s restraints in a male-dominated world. Spoiler alert: Nora leaves her family in the last scene of the original play, an act of such appalling transgression, at the time, that the scene was known as “The door slam heard around the world.”
“This is one of those stories that we can continue to retell,” Holloway-Burrell said. “It’s crazy that this play rang loud in the 1800s, and through the 1900s, and here and now in the new millennium. This play still sings a very, very soulful tune.”
In the new script, Nora, played by Lakeisha Coffey, is a much more empowered woman. Her husband Torvald (Germain Choffart) is CEO of a tech startup on the verge of going public, and Nora herself has become a giant Instagram star. She’s debuting her new reality TV show on the eve of their annual Christmas Party. But a terrible secret threatens to expose the couple’s glitzy celebrity life.
Indeed, the new story has its roots in the weird world of modern-day celebrity.
“This concept came to me when I came across this clip from ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians,’” Holloway-Burrell said. “In 2018, Nora and Torvald are actually like Kim and Kanye. I wanted to see what this story would look like through an overlay of reality TV and pop culture.”
Holloway-Burrell has deep roots herself in the local theater scene. A graduate of the Durham School of the Arts and North Carolina Central University, she wrote her first play in seventh grade.
She returned to North Carolina after studying at The Lark, a prestigious theater lab in New York City. With a background in progressive theater and experimental performance, she says her interest in Ibsen sometimes surprises people.
“I find myself most passionate about women’s stories, or stories of people of color,” she said. “Generally, that’s what I tend to gravitate to. But I remember reading Ibsen in undergrad and being so moved.”
In fact, Ibsen’s classic play remains her single favorite work of theater.
“I tell people all the time, that even though I’m most interested in quote-unquote ‘black theater’ and people of color, this is my favorite show,” she said.
Looking back, she said, “A Doll’s House” represents the artistic impulse that initially drew her to the theater — its grand history of pushing back against the norms of society.
“I was intrigued by this idea of this woman actually walking out on her husband, her kids and her whole life,” she said. “Nora just walks away from the institution of family. There was such an uproar at the time. It was the most blasphemous thing you could do.”
In an effort to update the work in both content and form, Holloway-Burrell and her collaborators have inserted some digital and interactive elements into the performances. Audience members are encouraged to bring their phones and even use Twitter during the show.
“There’s a place in the show where the audience can tweet with us,” she said. “You know, I want to make sure that theater does not become this antiquated art form. I think a lot about what we need to do to pull people in. I discovered theater when I was in middle school, high school. So I think, in the year 2018, what do people need to be drawn into a theater?”
Holloway-Burrell said she’s grateful to have the opportunity to do this kind of work locally.
“The Triangle absolutely has the potential to be a destination for theater,” she said. “I love that, on any given Friday, you can go see street theater, or go to one of the big venues and get these Broadway-level performances, or go somewhere else and find really gritty and provocative work.”
It’s a friendly scene, too.
“What I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of willingness to cross-pollinate,” she said. “People come out on weekends and we see each others’ shows. There’s none of that competitive thing you get in New York or Chicago. So far as I can tell, that just does not exist here.”
What: “A Doll’s House, Remodeled”
When: Oct. 12 – 28, various evening and matinee performances. The Justice Theater Project will host a series of discussions and other events throughout the run of the play. Check the website for details.
Where: Umstead Park United Church of Christ, 8208 Brownleigh Drive, Raleigh
Tickets: $22 adults, $17 senior/student/military, $14 groups of 10 or more, $10 for high school students
Info: 919-264-7089 or thejusticetheaterproject.org