Social Media Theater

 Wp-Content Uploads 2009 01 About Chinaka

It's one thing for massively popular TV shows like Heroes and Lost to use social media to build characters and infill back-stories. But can a young playwright turn those same viral marketing techniques into art?

Twenty five-year-old Chinaka Hodge's play, Mirrors in Every Corner, is an intimate story of a black family set in West Oakland. But even that simple description doesn't work. By the time the play begins, the mom in the family, who already had three black sons, has inexplicably given birth to a white daughter. (The girl, by the way, is played by the same adult black actress who portrays the mother.) The story explores how race is lived within this family and out in the world, today and across generations. (Here's a long review.)

The play debuted this spring at the small non-profit theater, Intersection for the Arts, in San Francisco. For the next run of Mirrors in Every Corner, even before her characters say their first lines on stage, Chinaka is (as danah boyd might say) "writing them into being" (PDF) via platforms like Twitter, Facebook, GChat, and blogs. Her first attempt—a Twitter version of her play's opening scene (scroll all the way down to get to the first tweet).

Chinaka wants audiences to know more about these five family members than can fit inside the play itself. She wants us to share experiences with her characters (like, say, a recent Dave Chappelle show at the New Parish in Oakland), interacting with them in the same digital spaces where we congregate with friends. It's about making the play relevant for young theatergoers. "We're asking them to take a huge leap in terms of what race is, a huge leap in terms of time, space, ancestorship," she says, given the impossibility of the play's premise and the way her story wedges history into the present. Chinaka's banking on achieving realism by extending the play's artifice beyond the theater.

I've known Chinaka since she was in high school, when she started performing stunning poetry as part of our shared work at Youth Speaks, the nation's leading spoken-word poetry organization based in San Francisco. Here she is just a few years post-grad on the HBO series, Def Poetry Jam. In the video below, she describes her social media plans for the next staging of Mirrors in Every Corner.

Indie producers started integrating social media into the creative process a long time ago. But Chinaka's vision for rupturing the fourth wall raises all sorts of questions for playwrights and others who've traditionally touched audiences through live performance. What does an author do with the character-building that takes place in the digital beyond, outside her control? How does that engagement feed back into the stage piece? Does the author have to out the characters as fictional, so as not to risk leaving audiences feeling duped? How does an emerging artist get audiences to care about obscure characters in a small independent theater project in the first place?

When you think about it, social media makes all of us into playwrights, turning ourselves into characters and our lives into scripts. We upload pictures that make us look way better than in real life, we labor over getting the phrasing of an update just right. And so it seems oddly fitting, as we move through social media spaces, to run into fully fabricated characters, whose creators have unleashed them onto a different kind of stage.