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'Only We Know Best—At the Town Hall Meeting'

Satirical musical comedy combats reactionary partisanship

May. 9, 2017
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“I started to get really frustrated by the vilification of the other side, coming from both sides of the aisle. It’s just good luck that I happen to have a lot of conservative friends who I bonded with over other stuff.” So says Milwaukee playwright, composer and performer Jason Powell of his own investment in politics over the tumultuous past year. Fortunately for Powell, and for Milwaukee theatergoers, we can look forward to a unique collaborative production that fires thoughtful satirical comedy back at the profusion of hatred and demonization that presently wracks our partisan society: Only We Know Best—At the Town Hall Meeting.

Powell, known for such celebrated new works as Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Fortuna the Timebender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom and Milwaukee Metro Voices’ (MMV) The Search for Suzie Surreal, teams up for the second time with MMV’s Trefor Williams to bring us this political satire at Next Act Theatre. Williams has headed Milwaukee Metro Voices since its inception 12 years ago and describes how his company has moved from “themed concerts” programmed by Williams himself to an increasing focus on commissions and collaborations, like this one, that link the group to local artists and “bring together the elements of drama and musical theater.”

The artists involved in Only We Know Best are an impressive cross-section of greater Milwaukee’s performing arts community. In addition to composer/lyricist Powell and producer/musical director Williams, Tessara Morgan serves as stage director. She and Williams marked their first collaboration with last fall’s A Cabin in the Woods, a spoof on the 2011 horror film. Morgan’s other recent endeavors include directing last summer’s successful avant-garde piece, Dali’s Liquid Ladies. Thirty actor-singers fill out the ensemble, including ComedySportz Milwaukee’s Beth Lewinski in the important role of moderator for the titular town hall meeting.

Next Act’s Mike Van Dreser provides technical direction, and a three-piece band will accompany the ensemble—Alex Chilsen (Keyboard), Andy Blochowiak (Drums) and Jason Powell (guitar and keyboard).

The premise of Only We Know Best is simple: a community—unspecified, but resembling Milwaukee and Waukesha, according to Williams—convenes to discuss two topics: the installation of a public artwork on private property and the legalization of marijuana. From there, anything and everything become fodder for debate. The production’s style and ideology have a dual origin story. Williams has been heavily involved in political discourse and “community action theater.” This style of performance is frequently staged in the round and strives to “make people think about what is happening around them and possibly offer some solutions to the problems that we face.” Powell, for his part, drew the structure for Only We Know Best from a ComedySportz improvisation game called “Town Hall Meeting” in which players intersperse themselves throughout the audience and take turns contributing to a group conversation. The two men’s ideas meshed to create an immersive, in-the-round performance in which audience members find themselves seated among the actors. This format became ever more timely as the political events of 2016 unfolded during the show’s planning process. Williams shares that they originally considered setting the piece in the future but settled on the present since grassroots organizing and community conversation have become hot topics.

The show is billed as a musical comedy, but Powell’s and Williams’ descriptions suggest greater depth and bite than are typically attributed to this genre. The characters represent a diverse array of political ideologies; as Powell says, “There have to be liberals and conservatives. Both of them have to be made fun of, but both of them have to be taken seriously too.” With discussions of public art and pot legalization catalyzing the action, the story is more idea than plot driven, and the way things shake out, each song functions as a discrete exploration of a different socio-political topic. These include: gun control, corporations being treated as people under the law, same-sex marriage, immigration and mine closures by the EPA. Powell notes, “Almost every song is satirizing those points of view and then every so often I try to do one that is a little more serious.”

Stylistically, the songs cover an enormous range as well, from cha-cha, tango and waltz, to reggae, troubadour folk song and blues. Lest readers harbor any lingering fears of heavy-handedness or pomposity, Williams further assures us, “There’s plenty of sin and sex. We’ve got a community in it.”

Joking aside, Powell and Williams suggest the production will touch a heartstring and provoke a meaningful conversation. After all, it comes from a simple but noble goal: to use an up-close and immersive theatrical format to humanize people with whom audience members may disagree and whose demonization has lead to the dysfunctional, reactionary partisanship rampant in our country. Powell muses, “America kind of became about winners, but the nature of the game is that we have winners and losers.” Williams adds, “The winners used to look after the losers. It’s called philanthropy in private terms and it’s called welfare and compassion in public life. It’s not gone. I think it’s not allowed to come to the fore now because people think it’s wrong for it to be there.”

Through the show’s immersive staging and gamut of perspectives, Only We Know Best reminds us, as Powell succinctly puts it, “Everyone’s people and it does just start with communication, whether that means you’re remembering the losers deserve some compassion or remembering that just because someone believes some things about climate change that you think are ridiculous, they’re still a person.”

Only We Know Best—At the Town Hall Meeting runs May 12-21 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, visit milwaukeemetrovoices.org.

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