Arts & Events

Troy the Hillian: a captivating exploration of the value of theater

By Henry Smalley

Dr. Wind Dell Woods’ workshop production of his original script “Troy The Hillian” is a play that produces big laughs and even bigger ideas. The play is set in a far-future, post-apocalyptic society whose entire culture has changed. With limited knowledge of our current understandings of race, power and language, a group of three actors, two scholars, a poet, a stage manager and a director attempt to put on a performance of August Wilson’s Fences, a play which deals heavily in those concepts. As they work through the script, each character brings forth a new perspective on how to interpret and perform a play which, for them, may as well be gibberish. The end result is a script whose intelligence does not take away from its entertainment value and an equally impressive performance by a talented cast.

Dr. Woods, a professor of theater here at the University, originally wrote “Troy the Hillian” nearly 20 years ago as a grad school student. For him, the themes of the play had much to do with his decision to revisit and refine the script after so many years. According to Woods, the play’s ideas surrounding the importance of theater gained a newfound relevance in recent years. “COVID interrupted a lot of theater,” he explained, “It makes me realize how important it is to be in a community and create mythology together.”

As an exploration of theater’s cultural impact, the play-within-a-play structure was integral to the design of the script. Dr. Woods wanted to show a contemporary play with contemporary issues being performed in an unfamiliar future, forcing the characters to make assumptions about how to interpret and perform the work. Dr. Woods chose August Wilson’s “Fences” specifically because of its thematic content, “I wanted a play that would give us some interesting challenges in terms of race,” Dr. Woods said. “Fences’’ is perhaps the best-known work of celebrated playwright August Wilson, and centers itself around the internal and familial struggles of a Black man in 1950s Pittsburgh. Besides giving the actors of his post-apocalyptic world something substantial to decode, Dr. Woods chose to use “Fences” as a tribute to Wilson, citing him as one of his most revered influences. “It’s an homage to August Wilson but also theater itself,” he said.

Of course, putting on a performance of “Fences” is not only a challenge for the directors and actors of the future. As a story about the Black experience, the irony of attempting its performance — or meta-performance — at a predominantly white institution like the University of Puget Sound is not lost on Dr. Woods. He explains that having a predominantly white cast works towards the design of the play. In “Troy the Hillian,” the defamiliarization of our current culture is central to the plot and having a mostly white cast perform “Fences” works well as a tool to communicate just how far this future society is from our current understanding of race. “It is so culturally and racially specific. I don’t think we’d have a cast of non-African Americans play in it anytime soon,” he said about “Fences.”

According to Dr. Woods, the script is still a work in progress. This performance was a workshop performance, meaning that it was a sort of test-run for the script. As rehearsal went on, Dr. Woods continued to make changes to the script, with its “final” version being passed out just a week before the first performance. The actors had their work cut out for them, having to memorize a new script on such short notice. The script itself presented some unique challenges, as well.

Beyond the task of delivering such heavy themes, the actors had to bring themselves into a new world of Dr. Woods’ creation, which included learning a new, futuristic dialect. In the script, all double Rs became RZ, all words ending in TOR became TORTH and all words ending in OUR became OURTH. For example: “our doctor’s arrangement” would become “ourth doctorth’s arzangment.” These linguistic quirks make for some impressive and funny dialogue and are an incredible feat of Dr. Woods’ worldbuilding ability as a ‘directorth.’

Despite the challenges, the play’s cast was wonderfully effective at bringing the intellect and humor from Dr. Woods’ world to the audience. As all seven main characters were on stage together for most of the play, the actors were tasked with bringing energy and charisma throughout every scene and they delivered on all counts. Each actor brought life to their characters and the interplay between them, even in certain scenes’ backgrounds, kept the audience engaged.

Unfortunately, the final performances of “Troy the Hillian” were moved to a live online format due to COVID cases among the cast. Despite this challenge, the workshop production has certainly made its impact and Dr. Wood is hopeful for the future of the play. After the final performance of this run on November 5th, 2022, the professor says that he plans to take on a major revision and send it out into the world to see what kind of life it has. With the intellectual — almost academic — themes of the play, he says that he could see it having a strong future in other university productions. With such an entertaining and thematically intriguing script, the sky really is the limit for this home-grown play.