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"Speech and Debate"

A still from "Speech and Debate."

It’s not often that you willingly want to be reminded of your high school self. Yet “Speech and Debate,” a Georgetown production performed during the final days of January, left viewers feeling oddly nostalgic. Reminding us all where we come from, the unfiltered honesty and energy of the production had audiences in fits from the start and drew on some essential lessons we should never forget.

Vulnerability was the integral aspect of this coming-of-age story. The intimacy of the performance experience, immediately established by the cozy space of the Devine Theatre and the characters on stage as you walk into the space, allowed for this feeling to flourish. With Solomon at his desk, Howie on his phone, and Diwata playing her keyboard taking secret sips of alcohol—we became familiar with the high school outsiders before the show even starts.

In the plot, each character’s vulnerability is revealed and celebrated through their interactions with each other. Whether it is the fear of coming out, the secret of an abortion, or a sexual encounter with an authority figure, the characters are forced to share who they are because of the growing connection and love between them.

The staging worked to showcase this process. Three mini-stages surrounding the main space were furnished as each character’s room. Alternatively, the minimalist mainstage—consisting mainly of the movement of three chairs—became their shared space. This deepened our love and understanding of their connection. We intimately experienced each character individually and in this growing alliance. This helped create the play’s fascinating complexity and humanity in what is, at the surface, a story about three high school outsiders joining Diwata’s failing “Speech and Debate” club.

Coming out of the play, I thought to myself, “what the f*ck was that about?” The answer, it seems, was a heavy dose of intersectionality. The production cannot be tied to a single idea, emphasized by the clusters of random posters and books that surrounded the whole stage. Was it a play about sexual predators, freedom of speech, loneliness, connections, love, identity, sex, dreams…? The vulnerability of these lost yet ambitious teens allows for it all to resonate.

Elements of comedy furthered the production’s sense of intimacy. The talented cast brought an impeccable comedic delivery and timing. There was perfectly timed sarcasm, Diwata’s over-dramatic songs about her pre-recorded casio keyboard, and innocently awkward moments that force your head into your hands.

One moment that has stuck with me was Howie’s playful sarcasm (claiming he is in love with Diwata) when Diwata forces him to take his turn comforting Solomon. At this point, Solomon is throwing up in the trash, as his sexuality has just been revealed. This pivotal moment encapsulates the play’s constant build up of tension—as the students grapple with their identity—and comic relief.

As with this moment, the play as a whole shed a warm light on what, for many, is a traumatic high school experience. Ultimately, what appears to be the end of the world to Solomon is an issue Diwata and Howie could not care about less. From the start, they accept him unquestioningly, regardless of his sexual orientation. In fact, the only issues that arise are when Solomon is not honestly himself. This contrast, between how Solomon feels as his secret is revealed, and the loving lack of care the others have, not only makes for great comedy, but also instills an essential lesson in audiences: the people who love you respond best to who you really are.

The climax of the entire work was the dancing scene in “nude body stockings” to George Michael’s “Freedom.” For me, this exhibited a true celebration of the strength in vulnerability. Having come to terms with aspects of themselves the characters once felt ashamed of, and learning how to be comfortable with them around each other, they let loose. The audience in hysterics, the cast performed what honestly felt like the performance of a lifetime, without any attempt to make it looked choreographed or clean. Rather, the scene was just three teenagers, stripped of all the concealments placed on themselves. Starting off alone, ashamed and closed off, they end up together, quite literally stripped, open and in love. They were free!

Zeigherman is an Undeclared Freshman.

PC: Lisa Helfert/Georgetown.

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