Review: Artful adaptation, solid performances mark ‘The American Way of Eating’ at Theatre UNI


By Barbara Lounsberry

WCF Courier • Oct. 14, 2013

CEDAR FALLS, IA – The energetic, passionate, and artful Theatre UNI production of “The American Way of Eating” will change your thoughts on food forever—and in only an hour.

This original adaptation of Tracie McMillan’s 2012 book of that name by UNI Theatre professor Matthew James Weedman (and his students) opened Thursday in the intimate Bertha Martin Theatre and will run through Sunday, Oct. 20.

It is meant to be—and is—change-making theatre.

McMillan, a blue-collar young woman, decided to follow the U.S. food chain. She harvested garlic and lettuce in California; worked in a Wal-Mart produce department in Detroit; and in the kitchen in a Brooklyn Appleby’s restaurant.

Director-adapter Weedman and his nine UNI actors bring each of these locales vividly to life in swift-moving vignettes. Molly Franta plays Tracie McMillan and serves as a likeable, straight-forward guide to her journey.

Photo by Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer
Photo by Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer

The other actors play multiple roles which helps us see that we are all part of the food chain and could easily be the California migrant worker picking the lettuce, or the Wal-Mart employee spraying the lettuce (Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the U.S.) , or the Appleby’s cook serving the lettuce—as well as the lettuce consumer.

Weedman’s adaptation is artful from start to end. Spanish switches with English, particularly in the moving opening scenes of California migrant picking. We hear and see firsthand the two-culture dimension of our food chain, for we learn that 25 percent of all U.S. produce comes from California — and 50 percent of our fruit and nuts.

UNI scenic designer Leonard Curtis gives us a bare stage for the performance space. However, he offers as well the vision of joined hands. On the bare stage floor we see two huge hands locked in union, and he uses two joined, but now opened, large hands in the back as a screen. On these hands lighting designer Allison Smith, a UNI senior, projects fields of lettuce, or the Wal-mart aisles of dewy lettuce and broccoli, or the familiar Appleby’s booths as visual backdrop for the scenes appearing before us.

Weedman also uses rows of stacked large produce boxes as both backdrop and screen as our food makes its way from field to market. Sara Roth has composed music that filters through the show, and costume designer Jennifer Sheshko Wood’s contrasting garb makes a darkly ironic point in itself. We move from the jean-clad migrant workers with their vital hats (to protect them from the hot sun) and two bandanas (to protect the nose and mouth from the damaging dust), to the Wal-Mart workers in their cheery blue vests covered with smile-pins, and the vibrant red shirted Appleby’s workers.

This production lets us see the damaging sides of our current “American Way of Eating,” but also suggests hope and the path to better ways. We learn that cooking a meal with local produce takes exactly the same amount of time as whipping together a high-calorie, high fat and sodium meal from a box or can. We learn that while fast food chains and vending machines are certainly convenient and are all too close by when we’re “too tired to cook,” we are often trading “convenience” for good health.

Most importantly, this artful energetic trip through our “American Way of Eating” helps us see that we are all implicated in the food chain. We are bound to the workers — often undocumented — who harvest our food. California by law has an $8 minimum wage, but migrant workers, who are often paid by the bucket rather than by the hour, often make a mere $1.80 per hour and are often cheated of that. We are bound to the women harvesters who often face rape and assault.

We can simplify and shorten the food chain — and help these workers at the same time — and we can wrest back control of our food from large corporations. In short, we have choice and should use it effectively for our own health and for the well-being of those who share the land with us.

Director Weedman and Theatre UNI might be showcasing an increasingly important role for theatre in this century: adapting important nonfiction books into powerful theatre pieces that help us understand complex issues as they move and instruct.

Tickets are going fast to this hour-long eye-opening show.

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