produced by Gideon Productions in conjunction with BFG Collective Residency, featuring Hanna Cheek, Stephen Heskett, Matt Golden, Medina Senghore, and Erin Jerozal.
The Secret Theatre, Long Island City.
The Greeks tended to produce plays in trilogies, sweeping epics in which people are served their own children as an appetizer, and the solution to eye trouble is a little extreme. Modern drama got out of that habit for whatever reason, though occasionally an ambitious playwright suddenly hankers for a larger story. Mac Rogers is such a playwright and perhaps sf theatre’s most important. The final installment of his Honeycomb Trilogy, Sovereign, premiered at the Secret Theatre this June, and I don’t think I’ve been so excited about seeing a play in a long time. Rogers’s did not disappoint. In fact, he has completely upended sf on stage.
What struck me about Rogers’s approach to sf was its theatricality. When I say that I do not mean visual tricks or effects but the immediacy of human experience. In his program note, Rogers admits to not typically writing a program note, but in this instance, he felt it necessary to share some of the things he learned in writing the trilogy. His number one lesson is of greatest interest and import here: “Science fiction theater needs to be theater.” Can I have an “Amen!”? Rogers laments that too often the temptation for playwrights is to use the tools of film and television because that’s how they usually experience science fiction. “Theater is its own art form with its own tools, and it’s more than earned your respect.” His approach to this particular trilogy was to borrow from the best—as all good artists do. He borrows from the domestic dramas of Ibsen, Albee, and Miller for Advance Man because though aliens are banging on the door it’s their effect on people—everyday people—that is riveting. Moving outward into the larger social impact, Blast Radius reveals “a nightmare version of pastoral Shakespearean comedy: alternating between rulers and commoners, a woman in disguise, and a wedding-packed ending (except, you know, horrible).” Moving further out into ethical governance, morality, loyalty to law or individual, Sovereign goes back to the beginning by channeling Sophocles and Euripides, presenting “a hubristic ruler, haunted by the past, and facing a reckoning with forces larger than herself.” As Rogers puts it (and I heartily agree) when you look at it this way, “Theater is a great and natural home for science fiction.”
I’ve heavily outlined the action for the first two plays (Advance Man and Blast Radius) in prior reviews (NYRSF 283 and 286 respectively). The play opens at the governor’s residence, where a trial is in progress. Ronnie (Hanna Cheek), the leader of the brutal resistance against the alien Honeycomb and now governor of Coral Gables settlement, presides over the trial. Settlement manager Zander (Matt Golden) prosecutes Budeen (C. L. Weatherstone), a farmer who did not follow settlement law by reporting the death of his “wife” in a pitiful case illustrating the extent to which the Honeycomb disrupted traditional family structure and human cultural practices. Budeen’s wife has died, and under the aliens’ rule all bodies were reprocessed for utilization by the community. Since there was no longer a hive to take the body, Budeen decided to repurpose his wife’s body himself into farm implements, gator feed, and fencing (you don’t want to know). As brutal and disturbing as this sounds, Weatherstone gives Burdeen a sympathetic ignorance. He doesn’t know any better, and he genuinely believes that he did the right thing. After all, she died of a disease that could no longer be cured. This sympathy is forwarded by his defense lawyer, Tanya (Medina Senghore), an idealistic individual who passionately believes in the spirit of the law, if not always the letter of it. All the while Fee (Sarah Thigpen) takes notes and sometimes making an acerbic comment.
Twenty years after the Mars mission brought the Honeycomb to Earth (Advance Man) and eight years after the beginning of the resistance (Blast Radius), the action of Sovereign focuses on Ronnie’s uneasy transition from resistance leader to law giver. After Budeen’s trial makes plain the state of cultural collapse, we learn that Ronnie and her “Bug Hunters,” a group of commandos under her direct order, have been systematically killing aliens and gathering up “skins” (those human bodies that shelter an alien consciousness) for imprisonment. The trial is interrupted by one of the hunters, Sharp (played by an arresting Daryl Lathon), who brings news that they’ve captured two individuals, one of whom is a skin.
After dismissing Budeen and Tanya, Ronnie argues with Zander about the use of settlement resources. She won’t reallocate personnel recovering technology from a dig in Miami and assign them to farms and infrastructure improvement. Her obsession over the recovery of what humanity has lost and revenge/retribution on the Honeycomb also keeps her from her daughter, a reminder of her dead husband who volunteered as a human bomb and began the resistance. Fee, who acts in capacities ranging from court secretary to Ronnie’s physical therapist, also provides care for Ronnie’s young daughter. Having lost all her children to disease, Fee struggles with Ronnie’s disinterest in her own child.
Sharp and another hunter, Wilkie (Neimah Djourabchi), enter with two suspected skins—a man and a woman. One is Abbie (Stephen Heskett), Ronnie’s brother and collaborator in the Honeycomb’s occupation, and the other a skin, Claret (Erin Jerozal), an alien anthropologist interested in human culture. She is pregnant with Abbie’s child. Ronnie sends the hunters to suss out why Abbie and Claret were near Coral Gables. Zander, who left after having his request for personnel denied, returns and recognizes Abbie. He wants him tried as a war criminal on charges of attempted genocide. Since Coral Gables has no law against genocide on the books, Zander and Ronnie quickly ratify one for a midnight trial against Abbie. They have to make certain that justice is done before sunrise. Should he be seen by the residents, those in charge know they would lose control to a mob.
Tanya has been called back and pressed into service as his defense lawyer. She agrees but only under the condition of being able to ask any question—no matter how odd or irrelevant. As she questions him, she uncovers some of Abbie’s motivations in supporting the Honeycomb. It was Abbie’s idea—not the Honeycomb’s—to transition the aliens into human bodies. These individuals retain their physical humanity, and their children, “hybrids,” are biologically human.
Even as Abbie’s motivations for cooperating with the Honeycomb become clearer, Ronnie’s activities with the resistance come to light. Ronnie terrifies Claret. To Claret and the aliens, Ronnie was Ronnie House Four and the most feared threat in the ten-thousand-year history of the Honeycomb. To provide a face for the resistance, the bombers around the world would always tie themselves to an individual calling herself Ronnie House Four, giving the resistance a real person to rally to, no matter where dissent spread. The plan went flawlessly. Honeycomb hives burned to the ground and could not make contact to warn other hives. Claret makes it clear that the Honeycomb had no malice; they genuinely thought they were doing good, doing what the humans wanted. Instead, as Abbie points out, they freed the animal from its trap only to have it turn and bite them.
Then everyone stops—silent—as they hear and disturbing noise from outside. They all know the sound, and the mood in the room shifts, making action and decisions swifter. Ronnie asks and Fee confirms that the “contingency” has been filled and is in place. The hunters enter with news—they’ve captured a queen and her eggs. She is the last of her kind, and her breeding is an act of desperation—she’s too old. Ronnie orders the queen killed, but Abbie triumphantly points out that she cannot. They now have a law against genocide in Coral Gables—one which neglects to specify “human.” But it doesn’t protect Abbie who is to be executed by dawn.
Act two opens with Abbie holding Claret as she sleeps in his arms. Ronnie and Wilkie enter, and Wilkie attempts to cajole Ronnie into accepting him as a permanent lover. She refuses as the queen, offstage, begins to cry piteously. They roughly waken Claret and take her to the queen. She knows the hand language invented for communicating with the Honeycomb—a telepathic race—to make her quiet. Ronnie and Abbie are left alone to reminisce, giving the impression that beneath the antagonism and disagreements the two still reluctantly care about one another.
The others enter after having gone through the settlement reassuring people that nothing is wrong. The queen has quieted, and the trial resumes. Zander argues with Tanya over the new law and its wording. Torn between wanting to kill the queen and killing Abbie, Claret proposes that the humans let the Honeycomb survivors go. Let the eggs hatch, and they will all leave. When asked how, Claret explains that the Honeycomb uses organic technology; their spacecraft utilized their own bodies. Keeping the queens at the center, the “bug water” is actually their rocket fuel. When the outer layer of individuals runs out of oxygen, they mix their adrenaline with the water, creating an explosion for propulsion or course correction. They didn’t know that the same material could cause a similar reaction in humans.
Claret, much like Conor in the earlier plays, serves as a sympathetic and honorable alien in the face of human animosity against their species. She genuinely believes that, because the humans fought back the way they did and won, the Honeycomb must have been wrong. In atonement for the wrong, they would only ask to leave Earth, not knowing if they might find another planet. Zander believes other settlements should be called in to make a decision based on Claret’s offer, but Ronnie wants them dead. Tanya, ever the defense lawyer, wants to hear them out, angering Ronnie. She wants to return to the time before the Honeycomb, before they took her future from her. Zander, who has been advocating resources for farming and not tech recovery, tries to make Ronnie understand that they are farmers now—the old world isn’t coming back and most people no longer remember the time before.
Wilkie and Sharp, having been sent by Ronnie to get “the stuff,” re-enter with rusty cans of paint thinner. They all realize Ronnie’s intentions, and Tanya reminds her they haven’t reached a decision. Ronnie replies, “Either we can reach one or time can reach one.” Tanya confronts Ronnie with the magnitude of her decision. Ronnie finally cracks, grabs the lawyer, and holds a knife to her throat. But even under duress Tanya sticks to her principles: “If there’s a spirit to that law, it must be that there are some things so horrible, that we won’t do them even in our own protection, because by doing them, we make ourselves unworthy to survive.” But the settlement is beginning to wake as the sun comes up and reasoned decision will no longer be tenable.
Ronnie orders Abbie and Claret tied and gagged as the situation rapidly unravels. Claret begs for the survival of her people, and Fee snaps. She remembers losing her babies because the Honeycomb removed the technology that might have saved them. She’s been taking care of Ronnie’s daughter; resentful that with all the attention she lavishes upon the girl the child still wants her mother and not her. In the midst of the arguing and recriminations, Ronnie goes out the door and sets fire to the queen and her eggs while the others look through the window, hearing the screams of the queen which eventually fade, leaving nothing but the crackling of flames.
Ronnie reenters, sending Wilkie and Sharp outside for crowd control, announcing that she will hand the government over to Zander, but before she does so, she has three conditions: 1) Claret goes free to stay or go as she chooses; 2) Tanya, who she knows will charge her with genocide, becomes the settlement manager; and 3) she gets to execute Abbie with no one else in the room. Zander refuses the third condition. He wants to kill Abbie because he needs to kill someone to prove himself. Ronnie agrees and swears everyone in. Tanya leads Claret away and the others leave Zander, Ronnie, and Abbie alone.
Ronnie hands Zander the knife, but he can’t work himself up to killing Abbie. Ronnie suggests knocking Abbie out first and proceeds to demonstrate how, intentionally knocking Zander unconscious. She quickly unties Abbie and asks him to help her drag Zander over to the side of the room. She then hands him a hunter’s poncho and tells him to run. The entire time Abbie questions why Ronnie would tell him to move Zander exactly ten paces. He knows that is the blast radius for bug water, and she confirms that’s what the thermos, the “contingency” plan, contains. She tells him to leave again and crosses to stand near the memorial. As Ronnie unscrews the thermos and places her hand on Peck’s name, she quietly murmurs, “Are you with me?” and prepares to drink.
Abbie suddenly returns, bursting in to wrestle the thermos from her. They struggle but the fight goes out of Ronnie, and the two cling to one another. Abbie asks if she knows of a place they could go. She does, and they both move to the door. Before they exit, Abbie taunts her with an old childhood story they used to share about a frightening bald woman who would crawl on the porch waiting to get them. He dares her to open the door, and the stage lights go out as she does.
Director Jordana Williams has done some truly superb work over the course of the trilogy. She has retained a tight pace to the action in each play, and the emotional tension never overwhelms or distracts. Additionally, she has a good eye for moments of tableau such as Ronnie’s attempted suicide. Another moment involves Ronnie and Abbie, each touching the name of their loved one, Peck and Conor. She stares down her brother, defiant, daring him to denounce her for her decisions, while Abbie allows it to wash past him. He’s focused on his loss and little else. Sovereign’s second act produced a challenge for Williams. The extreme act of burning the queen needed more than the lighting and sound to carry it. The staging and actors would need to sell it, and by overlapping the characters’ dialogue, William’s heightened the emotional chaos in the room. Claret dropped to the floor screaming as she’s held back and gagged, Abbie tried to yell around his gag, while the lawyers and by-standers attempted to stop Ronnie and regain control of a situation that cannot be contained any longer.
Williams had ample talent at her disposal. In certain respects, the characters of Ronnie and Abbie had already been created by other actors who played them through Advance Man and Blast Radius, but in Sovereign, these characters are significantly older. Cheek and Heskett met the challenge of retaining prior portrayals of the characters while making original contributions. The anger and stubbornness which served Ronnie in her role of resistance leader now hobbles her ability to move on toward a different kind of future. Cheek conveys Ronnie’s barely restrained frustration through her inability to keep still and her agitated hand gestures. Cheek had a wonderful ability to externalize Ronnie’s furious thinking, especially given the fact that the script had written in a severe leg injury for Ronnie, hampering her physicality. Instead, Cheek’s eyes moved from person to person, always restless and calculating, maintaining Ronnie’s habitual manipulation of people. As the action progressed, Cheek allowed Ronnie to become tired and to begin to see that this was a world to which she no longer belonged. Like the old technology she excavated, Ronnie could no longer function in a practical capacity.
As Ronnie’s younger brother Abbie, Heskett retained some of the arrogance of the character from Blast Radius. Instead of championing the Honeycomb at the expense of his own humanity, Abbie had embraced a hope for working side by side as opposed to joining with and becoming one of the transitioned “skins.” Heskett’s timing and body language made the sibling relationship apparent—turning his back on Cheek, touching the technology—her things—poking fun at her “relationship” with Wilkie. There were some difficulties with the first act which was exposition-heavy. The presentation was somewhat flat and the exposition did not grant much opportunity to reveal a great deal about the character. This, however, picked up admirably in the second act. Heskett’s tenderness and sad bemusement in revealing Abbie’s feelings toward Conor’s sacrifice came out in his hesitancy in both speaking and reaching toward the memorial displaying Conor’s name.
Cheek and Heskett played well off of one another as did Matt Golden as Zander and Medina Senghore as Tanya. Golden imbued Zander with a nervous energy giving the impression of wanting desperately to impress someone with his abilities. To show him as the driving factor behind the decision making, Golden gave Zander the air of a man who desperately wanted to prove himself but whose abilities, bureaucratic and not military, did not impress the old regime. Golden brought this out in physical and vocal contrasts. When displaying Zander’s prowess as a manager, Golden stood taller and gestured confidently, when confronted with his lack of military ability he hunched submissively and became flustered. Senghore as Tanya reminded me of Alfre Woodard in her earnest steadfast interpretation. She exuded calm simply standing there. When other actors attempted to intimidate her through physical presence, she held her ground. The way in which she spoke her lines firmly and clearly—though not loudly—gave each utterance authority and intent.
Sarah Thigpen, as Fee, and Erin Jerozal, as Claret, both gave very intensely emotional performances. Thigpen balanced Fee’s resentment of Ronnie with a reluctant admiration for the decisions Ronnie had to make. She played Fee as someone often relegated to the background but without allowing Fee to disappear completely. Thigpen’s restraint allowed her confrontation with Claret, and via extension Ronnie, to become a very powerful outburst by giving the impression of long simmering anger over the loss of her children. Jerozal gave Claret a charming innocence. Her performance of the alien in a human body carried echoes of Jason Howard’s portrayal of Conor in the earlier plays. The parallel with Howard’s portrayal muddied the impression of the Honeycomb as horrific overlords—the position of “enemy” was no longer clearly delineated. Claret’s desperate desire to understand humans came through brilliantly in Jerozal’s combination of hesitancy and fear interjected with bursts of elegant observation and confidence. Like Thigpen, Jerozal reined back her portrayal of Claret which allowed her to give the scene when the queen is burned a wrenching power. Her mute and crushed demeanor in the aftermath left nothing but pity not just for Claret but for all the transitioned human/alien hybrids.
Sandy Yaklin’s set has certainly had quite a run. From upper-middle-class living room, to hovel and resistance base, to seat of new government power—each permutation as served as excellent playing area for the action as well as being evocative of the action’s timeline and circumstance. In Sovereign, she transformed the set once again. The modified door was removed, and the walls were whitewashed. On the largest wall, a memorial to the original fifty-one bombers has been erected. This directly faced both the audience and the governor’s chair sitting in the corner downstage right. Two longer benches also faced the chair along with two smaller seats behind them, and one smaller chair in the corner upstage right, clearly indicating a trial setting. The books on a small bookcase at upstage left indicated the victory over the Honeycomb as did an intriguing collection of old technology—cell phone, radio, some implements powered by batteries, and the thermos—beneath the memorial to the fifty-one.
Along with the set, Amanda Jenks’s costume design revealed a gradual return of human culture and technology (albeit low). The fabrics were cleaner, brighter, and better fitting. The women (with the exceptions of Ronnie and Claret) wore long skirts and simple blouses, while all the other characters wore close-fitting trousers, boots, and shirts with vests or jackets. Ronnie’s bug hunters sported dark green ponchos which signify their status as hunters. Abbie and Claret were filthy, clothing tattered, indicative of their lives on the run as well as earlier futile attempts to get to Honeycomb hives before the bombings could occur. The contrast marked a reversal of Abbie’s position in Blast Radius, where he wore the better clothing while others wore rags.
The sound and lighting design carried the off-stage action and presence of the Honeycomb as they did in the prior plays. The characters specify that electricity has been provided to the house via generator, and the ad hoc nature of the lighting—for example, the bare, clear bulbs on the memorial and Christmas lights wound around the main light fixture—revealed the gradual return of basic technology. The death of the queen, however, was spectacular in conjunction with the sound design. At several points in the action the actors heard a noise off-stage. Sound designer Jeanne E. Travis did it one last time, concocting a combination of piteous chirps and a truly eerie, hair-raising, tortured scream that teetered between terrifying and pitiful. Adding Jennifer Linn Wilcox’s bonfire lighting effects to the sound created a chilling moment of catharsis—a fear of the alien queen and the thousands of eggs she bears and a pity for her death by immolation and the consequent death of a ten-thousand-year-old race.
My only quibble with Sovereign was its ending. The moment when Ronnie picked up the thermos and placed her hand on her husband’s name was an incredibly powerful one, and I was hoping that it would end on this incredibly effective moment. Committing suicide stays within the Greek influence of the narrative, but also mitigates her crimes. Yes, she commits genocide and does so with full knowledge of the effects on the race she kills as well as her own eventual execution for the crime. But the suicide also ennobles her actions in Blast Radius. What she does and how she goes about it in both Blast Radius and Sovereign were horrible, but the reasoning was sound. She took the crimes of what must be done upon herself, and like Conor, she made amends. Abbie’s return for her was certainly lovely in terms of the typical happy ending, but it lacked a definitive finality to the arc of the stage narrative.
Throughout the play Rogers blended the best of Twelve Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Antigone. But that’s just the theatrical antecedents. There is a hint of I Am Legend in the terror produced by Ronnie House Four, but Rogers points to Ender’s Game (1985) as the larger influence on Sovereign. In a brief chat with Rogers after the performance, he told me that he had read Ender’s Game as a kid, and then re-read it as an adult. His first reading of the novel at a younger age left him thinking that the xenocide was a profound moment in the novel, but his second reading left him extremely dissatisfied. Where was Ender’s conscious decision in all this? What he sought to bring out in Sovereign was Ronnie’s knowledge of her choices. Unlike Ender, she was fully aware of the horrific nature of her decisions and nevertheless chose to break the law and her promises in Blast Radius, killing the aliens without remorse.
There are several parallels between Sovereign and Ender’s Game. Ender Wiggin fights against the Formics, bug-like aliens not unlike the Honeycomb, who are protective of their queen. In the novel, his instructor brings him to the training simulator and tells Ender this is his final test. Ender breaks the rules, pretty much wipes out his fleet, but ultimately commits xenocide and wins the war. Ender, however, never knows until afterward that it wasn’t a simulation. Under the auspices of “play,” Ender did not realize that there would be real consequences. As the story continues, Ender finds the dormant egg of a Formic queen, finding out telepathically that the entire war was a huge cultural misunderstanding, wherein the aliens thought the humans were non-sentient because they lacked a hive mind, realizing their mistake too late.
Ronnie, unlike Ender, knows that she has asked real people to die, her husband being one of them. The shrine on the wall displaying the names of the original fifty-one human bombs is in full view of the governor’s seat. She stares at that wall and intimately remembers the name and background of each person she asked to die. Ronnie also consciously chooses to burn the queen and the eggs alive, condemning both herself and the Honeycomb and the choice is double-edged. She cannot allow the aliens to leave the planet thereby negating the sacrifices made during the resistance, and she must protect her brother and keep her promise to Conor. Only a sufficient distraction would allow Abbie to get out unnoticed, and she provided it even though it meant the loss of everything.
What Rogers has offered with the Honeycomb Trilogy is a new template for sf theatre—one that brings back the reliance on and confidence in what theatre can do well. This trilogy along with other successful sf plays—though perhaps not to the same extent—returns to canonical examples of great theatre. Dog Act (NYRSF #274) borrowed heavily from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, while the recent Deinde (NYRSF #288) contains elements of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. I have noticed that where playwrights and directors have stuck to classic theatrical art and a reliance on basics—solid actors, elegant design, and a compelling theme (one can no longer categorize good theatre as having a definitive plot)—theatre and sf have combined to make something noteworthy.
Perhaps what is bad in sf on the stage comes from an urge to make theatre not theatre. Ultimately, this impulse is both ridiculous and futile. The cognitive dissonance of sf—borrowed from Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect—might seem on the surface to run counter to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief. Those don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, but given Rogers’s observations that too many playwrights look to film and television narratives to provide theatrical guidelines, the difficulty is that the suspension of disbelieve for those media and for theatre are quite different. Theatrically, Shakespeare answers the question of disbelief with in the prologue to Henry V: “Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?” It sure can—along with aliens, too.
Jen Gunnels lives in willing suspension of cognitive estrangement.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this TOC first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.
A print edition of Issues 289 and 290 is available from