By Mary Boyle
Malkia Stampley grew up in Milwaukee in the 53206 zip code—a community that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, in a city that is repeatedly ranked as the most segregated city in the nation, and one of the worst American cities for African-Americans to live and raise a family. The daughter of a pastor, and born into a large family of singers, musicians, and speakers, Stampley received her formal education at Marquette University, and her career as an actress, singer, and voiceover artist took her to Chicago, New York, and even to Japan and Taiwan. Though she could live anywhere in the world, Stampley realized that Milwaukee is her foundation, her city, and her home, and she returned to raise her own family here, co-founding the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, where she is able to offer opportunities to other actors of color. There is, perhaps, no better person in the city of Milwaukee to direct the World Premiere of Antarctica, WI at First Stage; a play that addresses some of Milwaukee's toughest issues by utilizing the power of live theatre.
Written by award-winning Austrailian playwright, Finegan Kruckemeyer, with input from the citizens of Milwaukee, Antarctica, WI is similar to Kruckemeyer's The Snow, which made its World Premier at First Stage two years ago, in that it examines the themes of community and what makes a hero; that being said, this play, because of the very personal connection to our community, and in light of the recent events it addresses, such as the unrest in Sherman Park in 2016 and the rise of the Parkland students—and students all over the country—against gun violence, speaks to audience members in a unique and powerful way. This play was, quite literally, made for Milwaukee.
Lenny (double cast as Jeffrey-Thomas Snow/Collin Woldt) is our protagonist; a teenager from Milwaukee who has a special ability to see things in a way others can't. As troubles break out in the city, Lenny and his friends lose the one place they can all go: an empty lot they've been playing baseball in for years that is now scheduled for new development. Lenny can see his friends' problems and the city's problems; like icebergs in Antarctica, they seem normal on the surface but, below the water, everyone is carrying much more than it appears, and the icebergs are breaking apart as the temperature rises. Lenny sees that if they keep breaking apart—keep dividing—they will forget that they were once a part of a whole; so, Lenny sets out to solve the problems. The trouble is, a protagonist needs an antagonist but, in real life, there is no, one bad guy who, when defeated, goes away and everyone lives happily ever after. Lenny may be able to help his friends, but can he help his city?
The adult cast of Antarctica, WI features Allen D. Edge as Dan, Marques Causey as Terry, Justin Lee as Matty, and Tasha McCoy as Eleanor, as well as Robert Torres as the understudy. Youth performers are double cast: the Ice Cast is Michael Black as Dewayne, Emily Harris as Captain, Kai Liebenstein as Michelle, Isaiah Martin as Marvin, Chantae Miller as Janelle, Nikolai Morrow as Awon, and Jeffrey-Thomas Snow as Lenny; the Berg Cast is Jonathan Edwards as Dewayne, Vicente Gunderson as Awon, Ashley Nord as Janelle, Nahjee Robinson as Marvin, Elisheva Scheuer as Michelle, Collin Woldt as Lenny, and Claire Zempel as Captain.
Jeff Frank, Artistic Director of First Stage, hopes that the play will ignite conversation, fuel insight, and remind people in the community that we're all in it together. "When we step away from our handheld devices and take time as a family, as a class, and as a community to come together to witness a well-told story, we rediscover our shared humanity."
Stampley recognizes that teens—especially teens of color—not having a place to go in the city is a problem that needs to be addressed, but also sees that they may not wait for the city to address it: "The adults of our city have solutions, policies, ideas to implement for most situations, but I am increasingly in awe of the teens in our city and around the country who have decided to speak for theselves and invoke a fearless warrior spirit when they have had enough and can no longer wait for adults to figure it out."
For those who love Milwaukee, or call it home, this play strikes right to the heart; it acknowledges that there is much to love about this city, but gives hope that there can be something better. More importantly, that we have the power—even the youngest among us—to make it happen.
Antarctica, WI runs through April 22nd at the Todd Wehr Theater, in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, located at 929 N. Water St. in Milwaukee. Tickets start at $15, and can be purchased by calling (414) 273-7206 or online at www.firststage.org Following select performances, learn more about the behind-the-scenes magic at Tech Talks, a 20-minute extended talkback with the creative team:
Saturday, April 14, following the 3:30pm performance, Artistic Director Jeff Frank shares the story of how and why a playwright from the other side of the world wound up crafting this play inspired by the citizens of Milwaukee.
Saturday, April 21, following the 3:30 pm performance, learn behind the scenes information with Technical Director Emily Adams and Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham as they share the story of the scenic design and creation for Antarctica, WI and the magic of bringing it to life.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund, First Stage embarked upon three initiatives to connect with young people and Milwaukee theater audiences in a new and dynamic way.
First Stage and renowned local photographer Paul Calhoun created the Portraits & Stories Project, for which 33 students from Maryland Montessori School, Parkside Middle School, Milwaukee High School for the Arts, Ronald Reagan High School, and University School of Milwaukee were photographed. These portraits are accompanied by the students’ personal stories, developed through theater workshops led by Artistic Associate Sheri Williams Pannell. The Portraits & Stories Project is on display in the upper lobby of the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater throughout Antarctica, WI performances.
Local artist and muralist James Tomasello and First Stage collaborated to work with eight students from Milwaukee’s TRUE Skool on the Coming Together mural, inspired by Antarctica, WI. After reading the most compelling parts of the script, the group discussed different concepts and each created a draft of the mural. The final product brings together all of the students’ concepts and visual creations. The Coming Together mural will be displayed at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center April 5 – 9, at the City Hall Rotunda April 9 – 13 and back at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center until April 23.
The Diving Down Below booklet, funded in part by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund grant, will encourage youth to engage in the fascinating journey of getting to know who they are and what matters to them, and to recognize how they can bring healing to their communities. The booklet will be distributed to all young people attending both public and school performances of Antarctica, WI.
New plays like Antarctica, WI are part of The Foundry, First Stage’s new play development initiative, forging the next generation of plays, programming, artists and audiences, while fostering community and empathy. To learn more about First Stage’s new play development initiative, visit www.firststage.org/foundry.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds, and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building, and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education, and the arts for its Next Steps program for students with autism (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Theatre Wisconsin, Milwaukee Arts Partners, and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).