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Review: Timely twists in Napa Valley College's reimagined 'Night of the Living Dead'

Review: Timely twists in Napa Valley College's reimagined 'Night of the Living Dead'

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Phil Ferrero

Phil Ferrero in the Napa Valley College production of "Night of the Living Dead."

The latest installment of the collaboration between Jennifer King at Napa Valley College and Kevin Kemp’s Streaming Theatre is another brilliant addition to what is becoming a new pandemic-era art form.

The Zoom “theater experience,” as King calls it, is a production where all the actors are in different, remote, spaces, acting in front of their webcams. While the initial vision was King’s, the technological execution was only possible with Kemp’s talent on Zoom.

They chose to remake the 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead,“ and their production ended up being a deeper and more nuanced expansion of the cult classic. Even with the adaptive restrictions of Zoom, the update was creepier, the actors more distraught, the hysterics more immediate.

A brief Google search yields hundreds of movies that feature a host of ways that humans are turned to brainless, disgusting, cannibalistic monsters. In the seminal one, the phenomenon is attributed to radiation from a space probe that exploded on its way back to Venus, which, given the 1960’s popular obsession with radioactivity enhanced by the paranoia around the atomic bomb, it’s not surprising that this was the chosen precipitating event

In King’s Zoom update, there are very few zombies. And, because Zoom restricts the sets to a virtual background, the onus of a compelling story is strictly on the actors’ skill from the chest up. When I watched the original, I wondered how King would handle, for example, Barbra being locked in her car while a ghoul scraped at the window or how the car would roll down a hill and crash into a ditch.

What she chose to do was rewrite the script so that the actors themselves told the story of what happens to them, which, in addition to being unable to use their whole bodies to convey their emotions, puts added pressure on their ability to convey the story.

Phil Ferreo’s description of the ghoul attack in the car was frightful. But what was really impressive was his endurance to transmit terror on his face for at least 15 minutes. His cheeks contorted, his eyes watered. His voice wavered and quaked. Had King told me that she was going to reduce the “Night of the Living Dead” into a series of monologues I would have been skeptical. But Ferrero’s performance proved riveting.

One thing I should note at this point is that King has chosen to throw gender conventions out the window. Johnny is played by Martina Sanchez while Barbra is played by Ferrero. In the original, Barbra survives the ghoul assault when she takes cover in the car, while her brother Johnny is killed bravely fighting off the ghoul. But with King’s, it is the sister, Sanchez’s Johnny, who attempts to fight off the ghoul, and the brother, Ferrero’s Barbra, who takes cover in the car.

Such a switch is appropriate for our time where women are no longer a second sex. The portrayal and assumption of a woman’s weakness in our popular consciousness is fast becoming archaic. The attendant disasters of our male-dominated economy, politics and public institutions only highlights that it is time for a feminine approach. And as with many things, it’s art that takes the lead.

Gender roles were not the only things reversed. The hero in the original is Ben, a young black man who has his wits about him and bravely secures the abandoned house. But Ben in King’s remake was played by Emerald McDonald, an iron-willed Black woman.

So, through two reversals, King has created a piece of theater where, demographically, the one with the most social capital — a White male — is saved by the one with the least — a black woman.

King’s last groundbreaking adjustment was the ending. In the original, Ben is tragically killed the next morning by the police when he is mistaken for a ghoul. That is, after Ben spent all night protecting a house filled with useless, self-absorbed White folks. If one could look at the symbolism of this with a racially critical eye, the director of the original might have been saying that despite the African American work ethic and efforts to be productive members of society, that society, represented by the police, would just assume the worst and kill them, despite the good work they do, rather than appreciate them for all they contribute or see them succeed.

This, unfortunately, is the way things have been. It is a history and reality with which we are being forced to come to terms. It has no easy solution and is best understood with nuance, generosity and care.

In King’s remake, Ben is not killed by the police in the end, which transforms the story into something that is hopeful and optimistic. It is possible, King seems to say, that a Black woman could get credit for her hard work. That she could be respected, rather than prosecuted, by the police. What if that is a world we have to look forward to?

King sees this narrative changing in our society. In this way, King’s art, through fiction, inspires us to see our non-fictional world in a new way. When the lights come on in the theater, or these days, when the Zoom window closes, we can look at our world and the people in it and see new possibilities — where stereotypes and accepted norms are no longer necessarily stereotypical or normal.

Times change, and art changes with it. It is the art that shows us that times are changing. It is the art that shows us that times can change.

To watch Jennifer Kings’ “Night of the Living Dead” go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExalPyGuzcQ

John Henry Martin thinks the future can’t get here fast enough. If you do to, email him at jhm@johnhenrymartin.com

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