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A biracial teen with autism, his ‘Black feminist video game’ and the power of play

A screenshot of two smiling people wearing headphones on one side with a video game on the other
Christon Andell and Kyla Jeanne Butts appear in a screenshot from “Black Feminist Video Game,” which explores our relationship to interactive technology.
(The Civilians)

One could be tempted to think that “Black Feminist Video Game” is taking some liberties with the interactive medium, especially once the game within the livestream play begins and the lead character of this Center Theatre Group presentation engages in a real-time conversation. The screen shifts from a computerized image to that of a real-life actor, and the chat references the very events that have occurred on this digital stage.

But a game springing to life isn’t so much a suspension of disbelief to those versed in the power of the interactive medium of video games. Ultimately, what this shows the audience is that the disconnection between video games and theater isn’t as vast as it may appear.

Just like the teenage Jonas (Christon Andell), video game players are performers in a digital world that places our imagination on a stage. We act — sometimes for an online audience — but essentially we are rehearsing, creating a space in which our thoughts, our anxieties and our fears can be challenged or given power.

A relatively svelte, 65-minute work from the New York ensemble the Civilians, “Black Feminist Video Game” follows teenager-in-love foibles. Penned by Darrel Alejandro Holnes and directed by Victoria Collado, the play dives into the performative worlds of video game streaming sites, video chats and virtual classes, where the always-on cameras and chorus of cheerleaders and trolls combine to create an overwhelming fear of seeking validation in others.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Dream’ brings live actors to online audiences, who can interact with the play like they would a video game.

For Jonas, this manifests in a borderline unhealthy obsession with his crush, Nicole (Starr Kirkland). But that’s all before we add in other complications of modern living.

Jonas, who is biracial and has autism, zeroes in on paralyzing statistics, broadcasting online his anxiety of being alone forever. (“Only 5% of people with autism get married,” he says.) The job stress of his mother, a nurse at a hospital, weighs on him, as do the pressures and stereotypes of being a young Black man. Jonas has to confront these realities even in casual conversations with his mother, Luna (Constance Fields), as she’s tending to those injured during pandemic-era Black Lives Matter protests.

Jonas wonders why the protests are still happening since the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor was months ago. Mom is forced to provide a quick history lesson on the never-ending fight for justice, and Jonas confesses to being overburdened. “It’s hard to be here sometimes,” he says. “Black history is too much to remember.”

He turns to popular culture, which is both a savior and a danger, and his approach is to broadcast his thoughts online. Whether one’s platform of choice is Twitch or Instagram, a false sense of intimacy blurs the line between online friends and “IRL” friends. In this climate, we’re all becoming over-sharers, which is nice if you want to flash vulnerability but potentially dangerous if you lose sight of boundaries.

A girl and a boy appear in a screenshot
Starr Kirkland and Christon Andell in a screenshot from “Black Feminist Video Game,” an online play that looks at how games can help us rehearse difficult emotions.
(The Civilians)

Jonas’ emotional spiral in “Black Feminist Video Game” stems from an online date gone bust with Nicole. An ill-timed pause during a James Bond flick freezes the screen on the upper body of an actress. Jonas is caught zooming in, fumbling over his justification for objectifying the Bond girl and bringing the date to an abrupt halt. For advice, he turns to his online focus group of friends, showing how our decisions to broadcast our lives can erode a sense of self.

Is it, after all, validation we seek or a harder path to personal happiness? Thankfully for Jonas, it’s his “little games,” in the words of his mother, that come to the rescue. And not just any game, but the “Black feminist video game” that doubles as the title of the play. The work here aims to show how we can connect with others digitally and can use the interactive medium to explore the complex issues our mainstream culture often doesn’t prescribe to the video game medium.

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It turns out games are uniquely tailored to explore love, romance and heartbreak. Consider “Maquette,” “Genesis Noir” and “Journey of the Broken Circle,” interactive conversations that ask players to think about love.

The play raises questions about reality versus escapism, seeking to explore how the connections we forge with digital content can be just as powerful as those cemented in real life, in part because of the sense of agency we have while engaging with it. “This game can be as real or as imagined as you want it to be,” says Marguerite (Mia Anderson), the graduate student who designed the game Jonas plays with his friend and who also serves as an in-game narrator.

Jonas embarks on the game to win a prize, namely a lock of hair from the late Black feminist leader Audre Lorde, hoping this shows his newfound cultural awareness. The game takes us through varying levels of topicality, showing at one point that the path to freedom is empathy and at another how the pressures of being Black can turn one’s entire life into an act of performance. What the play ultimately does is remind us that games are a learning tool. We don’t play to win so much as play to reflect.

When Jonas has real fears of dying in the game, this isn’t because of his youth or mental frame of mind. Games can become simulations and, especially for the lonely, games can provide conversation and healing. My biggest wish when watching “Black Feminist Video Game” was simply that the games tackling such real-life topics were in greater supply or not confined to the independent game space, where they risk being overlooked.

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And yet play, as it is for Jonas in “Black Feminist Video Game,” is still a chance to practice and prepare at working out difficult emotions. All art can accomplish that goal, of course, but when play is the medium, it gradually shifts the answers we seek. Jonas goes into the game saying “I want,” as in he wants to win to show his love for a classmate. He comes out of the game asking, “What if?”

Play, as “Black Feminist Video Game” reminds us, is a place to explore possibilities.

'Black Feminist Video Game'

Who: An online production from the Civilians in collaboration with 59E59, Center Theatre Group, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and co-commissioner Williams Center for the Arts at Lafayette College

Where: Currently on-demand via the Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage. Live performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to follow.

When: Streaming on demand through Center Theatre Group through Sunday ; livestreaming through Oregon Shakespeare Festival Tuesday-May 16, streaming on demand May 17-26

Tickets: $10

Info: centertheatregroup.org, thecivilians.org

Running time: About 1 hour, 5 minutes

Dan O’Brien, the playwright and poet behind “The Body of an American” and “The House in Scarsdale,” channels hurt and healing into new work.

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