Veteran Chicago actress propels a ‘truly compelling’ drama of haulers taking Earth’s garbage into space.
Long before she was a multi-hyphenate, award-winning singer/actor/director conjuring different worlds on stages across the globe, E. Faye Butler was enamored of the places she could go via her View-Master. The low-tech, vaguely binocular-shaped toy popular throughout the 1960s was the forerunner to virtual reality goggles: Insert a circular cartridge of slides, hold the gadget to your eyes and you could behold everything from the rings of Saturn to the Great Sphinx to cartoon strips.
“When you had your View-Master, you could go anywhere.. I remember watching Bugs Bunny through it, and he was more spectacular than he was on television. Made me think I was in another world,” Butler said. The artist has devoted her 40+ year career to transporting audiences to other worlds, be it via an August Wilson drama or a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical or a Shakespearean tragedy.
This week, Butler flexes her director’s muscles, helming Artemisia Theatre’s world premiere of Dallas native Lauren Ferebee’s “Goods.” The outer-space sci-fi drama follows Marla (Julie Proudfoot) and Sam (Shariba Rivers), two intergalactic garbage collectors charged with hauling loads from an increasingly uninhabitable earth and dumping it in distant outer-space asteroid belts.
As their tin-can rocket rattles toward the wastelands of deep space, the women must negotiate quarters tighter than an off-Loop theater dressing room and a cargo hold they are not, under any circumstances, to look inside.
“The spaceship is like being on tour. Circumstances make you get close fast,” Butler said, recalling years on the road with shows including “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Dinah Was” and both “Nunsense I” and “Nunsense II.”
“Goods” is set roughly a century from now, but it’s all often alarmingly recognizable, Butler added. As Marla and Sam take their astral road trip, the earth they left behind is drowning. Rising seas have submerged New Orleans and Miami, among other places. Countless climate refugees wind up parked indefinitely at interstellar “wait stations.” Despite the endless flooding on earth, potable water is a rare commodity. Space itself — for things, for people, for planets — is diminishing as well.
As Ferebee puts it: “It’s like the great Pacific plastic garbage patch, only there’s many of them and they’re also in space.”
Garbage — who defines it and what they do with it — is at the heart of “Goods,” which won the 2021 Planet Earth Arts Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, given to plays addressing environmental and social justice issues. The drama is also up for the Kennedy Center college festival’s National Partners in American Theatre Award.
“Trash is something I think a lot about — I see it as a metaphor for the way we try to push things away from us, and how sometimes they float right back in. Like the garbage in the ocean,” Ferebee said. “My mother has been an environmental activist since the 1980s. Some of my earliest memories are going to Earth Day events with her. People laughed at her for believing in global warming. The environment has been a driving force in my work, so it means a lot to have that recognized.”
Ferebee grew up an avid fan of “Star Trek.”
“ ‘Voyager,’ ‘Deep Space 9,’ also ‘Babylon 5,’ they were my shows as a kid in the ’90s,” she said. “As an adult I returned to them and I was like, ‘Wait. There’s a whole class of people missing here. Where are the janitors? The garbage collectors? Who cleans the bathrooms?’ I wanted to make the women in my play totally ordinary, dealing with those issues and counting down the days and the dollars until they can retire.”
“It was also important to me that the women be older,” Ferebee said of Sam and Marla, who are in their 40s and 50s, respectively. “I’ve heard my mom talk about how she feels invisible now in a way she didn’t when she was younger – I wanted to show those women.”
Butler has been president of Artemisia’s board for just over a year. She said she was drawn to the company by Proudfoot, its founding artistic director, and her mission to tell stories by and about women.
“There’s not enough of those,” Butler said. “It’s important that we elevate women — I’ve worked toward that all my career.”
That career is formidable: So far, it includes four Black Theatre Alliance Awards, two Black Excellence Awards, two Helen Hayes Awards, nine Jeff Awards, the Sarah Siddons Leading Lady Award and the Guy Adkins Award. Butler’s plaudits are primarily for her work on stage, but she’s hardly new to directing. She’s helmed musicals for Portland Stage, Peoria Player, Columbia College and Old Town Playhouse.
“I’m a good director because I’ve been on the other side of the table for so long too,” Butler said. “I think ‘Goods’ looks at how we want quick solutions for problems that have been around for a long, long time. You just take your garbage, and put it somewhere else. Well eventually, that doesn’t work so well. It’s a question ‘Goods’ makes truly compelling.”