“Long Distance Affair” features Haitian-American playwright and actress

Actress Wendy Elizabeth Abraham (left) and playwright France-Luce Benson are part of the “Long Distance Affair” series of immersive virtual plays running Feb. 11-21, 2021. Photos courtesy of the Juggerknot Theatre Company.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the film industry and theaters, leaving independent actors and playwrights scrambling to find new ways to share their work. As the world continues to cope with the effects of the pandemic nearly a year later, many in the performing arts have turned to virtual productions to premiere their plays.

This month, the Juggerknot Theatre Company is partnering with PopUP Theatrics in New York to premiere a series of online plays. Titled “Long Distance Affair,” the companies worked with independent actors, playwrights and directors to take audiences on a journey to multiple cities throughout the world from within their homes. Running from Feb. 11 to 21, the actors interact with five audience members at a time via Zoom in their own plays. 

“We’ve been isolated in lockdown for so long and this really does something to the human psyche,” said Tanya Bravo, artistic director of the Juggerknot Theatre Company. “The ability to break out of that and connect with somebody, even if it’s virtually, is a really beautiful thing.”

One performance is written by Haitian-American playwright France-Luce Benson, a Miami native now based in Los Angeles. Known for her plays featuring Haitian-American protagonists, Benson’s “Angelique” also stars Haitian-American actress Wendy Elizabeth Abraham as a woman trying to overcome the grief of multiple miscarriages through Vodou worship.

“A lot of my work has been about correcting revisionist history, shedding light on stories that have been suppressed, and honoring our ancestors by showing how they contributed to where we are,” said Benson. “I’m interested in stories about emotional healing, family dynamics, and how our relationships with each other are impacted by what’s happening socially and politically around us.”

Abraham had participated with Benson in a workshop before and was eager to work with her. The opportunity presented itself with the second iteration of “Long Distance Affair.” Together, Abraham and Benson developed the character through a series of conversations.

Because the format of the play is different than what an audience would experience in a live theater setting, Abraham will incorporate art and furniture from her own home into the performance. She is also weaving elements of her Haitian identity and experiences into the play.

“Working with France-Luce, a fellow Haitian-American, helps inform the full life of the character that I get to write,” said Abraham, who lives in L.A. “What I was able to bring to the table were my personal experiences and elements of my life that have been difficult but also have a journey of growth and development.”

While high-profile theater venues like Broadway remain shuttered and have been dealt a financial blow because of COVID-19, smaller, independent venues are taking even more of a hit. They have resorted to making pre-recorded content online through paid ticketing and live-streaming performances, as is the case with “Long Distance Affair.” Although many within the theater world note the impact of COVID-19 on their industry, they are also embracing the chance to work in a new medium.

“This is different from traditional theater because it’s highly interactive and the audience members are part of the show,” said Tai Thompson, the director of Benson’s play. “We still can’t walk into a building yet, but we’re learning all these new skills and finding new creative ways to make it work.”

Bravo said that the plays will be especially unique because if one of the five audience members decides to disappear, the actor will notice and respond to their absence. In addition, the audience members could take on different roles with their actor, and they may respond to them as if they were their brothers, sisters, or partners. 

Benson graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008 with a master’s degree in Dramatic Writing. In her nearly two-decade long career as a playwright, she has won multiple international awards and has had her work featured in the U.S. and abroad. For those who have worked with her previously, she is known as a dynamic, passionate playwright keen on telling Haitian stories from an accurate perspective.

“She has an unrelenting desire to really bring scope and depth to the Haitian immigrant experience,” said Keith Josef Adkins, a playwright and screenwriter who worked with her at The New Black Fest in New York. “Oftentimes, we hear stories about Haiti that’s coming from someone else’s gaze outside of Haiti.”

Benson has multiple projects in the works, including a three-part trilogy about The Haitian Revolution. She has also been commissioned by Adkins to work with 17 other writers at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. 

“Her work is universal by default because it focuses on the human experience,” said Lisa Rosetta Strum, a N.J.-based actress who has worked with Benson on multiple plays. “She’s changing the theatrical landscape because she’s creating stories that we’re not accustomed to watching unfold on the stage.”

“Long Distance Affair” runs from Feb. 11-21. Tickets can be purchased online via its website and performances can be accessed via computer or phone.  

This article was originally published in The Haitian Times.