Solo performer Latrelle Bright returns to Memphis with a global message.


She is matter. She matters. Who will care for her? We all return to her. What happens to a motherless child? — from Matter by Latrelle Bright

Even in its first incarnation as a 10-minute sketch, Latrelle Bright's Matter — opening at TheatreWorks this weekend as part of the annual SoloWorks series — wasn't an easy show to describe. It's a jazz-inspired poem about what it means to be human. It's a modern dance about relativism and global crisis in an ultimately ambivalent universe. It's also a multimedia courtroom drama pitting words against actions; a mild satire about bureaucracy; and a bit of Earth-friendly performance art with low-impact audience participation.

According to the author, who left Memphis last year to take a position with the Department of Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after earning an MFA at the University of Memphis, it's all about hubris.

"You hear people talking about saving the planet," Bright says. "But that's not what they mean. Earth doesn't need saving. The Earth is going to be here whether we're here or not. What people mean when they say we need to save the Earth is that we need to save ourselves."

Bright's ideas about what live performance can and should be have evolved significantly from her days as an undergraduate at Florida State. "I thought I wanted to be a black, female artistic director for a major regional theater, then I realized I didn't want to do those same plays that everybody else is doing," Bright says, crediting professors like Gloria Baxter and Susan Chrietzberg at the University of Memphis and Cookie Ewing at Rhodes College for inspiring her to explore other possibilities. Her interest in building theatrical events around social issues grew as she began to work with the Heifer Theatre Project, an offshoot of Heifer International that helps young people learn to use theatrical techniques to express their concerns about hunger, war, and inequality. "The idea that I could make meaningful art outside of a theater just blew my mind," she says of her decision to take a less-traveled approach to the performing arts.

"It's a perfect fit," Bright says of her current position as project coordinator for Inner Voices, the University of Illinois' social-issues theater project where she helps to develop performances focusing on a range of topics, including race, gender, body type, food, health, and sustainability.

Matter began as a sketch for Voices of the South's annual Christmas performance, Pre-sent, Pres-ent. And like all performances for Pre-sent, Pres-ent, it started with a gift from Jerre Dye, Voices of the South's artistic director.

"I opened this box, and it was full of packing peanuts," Bright says, remembering the day Dye's package arrived at her new home in Illinois. Inside the box, Bright, an Army brat who has lived in many different places, found Christmas ornaments, images that reminded her of places she'd been, an old photograph of a family, and handwritten comments and quotations relating to the concept of home.

"I had about 40 minutes of material back in December," Bright says, recalling her dilemma of how to take facts and statistics about things like water, air, and food and present them in a theatrical way. "But as I kept writing, the piece became more and more about humanity and this idea that taking care of the Earth is about taking care of people. I had more to say about that than I did about the statistics."

Pre-sent, Pres-ent is a group show with many artists bringing work to the table, and there simply wasn't time to include everything. That changes when Bright flies solo at TheatreWorks with her expanded version of the show.

Matter isn't didactic like so many shows about man's relationship with the environment. "I know I should separate [my trash]," Bright says, admitting that she is the definition of imperfect. With Matter she hopes to avoid defining what people should and shouldn't do and look at how we behave and why we behave that way. "I can't wait to see how audiences respond," she says.

Matter is at TheatreWorks July 15th-18th. Tickets are $20.

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