CONTRIBUTED BY PAUL FOX
Undocumented immigrants. The American education system. A new lens on the Vietnam War.
Boston’s award-winning Company One Theater produces thought-provoking plays that explore social justice issues.
Since its inception in 1999, Company One has strived to use theater as a vehicle for social change.
The theater was founded by Associate Dean and drama teacher Summer L. Williams, drama teacher Mark VanDerzee, Shawn LaCount ‘94 and several of their peers from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. There, many of them studied theater and education.
According to Williams, Company One’s associate artistic director, the desire to create theater that was relevant, diverse and encompassing of all identities stemmed from her own experiences.
“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t much being produced that I cared about. I didn’t see myself reflected on anyone’s stage—where did I go as a young black woman to see a story that I could connect to? It just wasn’t happening,” Williams said. “We wanted to do things that were new and fresh. There are a lot of plays that have been done over and over and over again—when do we hear something new?”
Like with many institutions, the road to success for Company One was one of difficulty and setbacks, but most importantly, it was one of unwavering determination to introduce new stories to the stages of Boston.
“Our first show sold out for five weeks, and we were like, ‘Great, we know what we’re doing, we’re about to be rich superstars,’” Williams said. “Then we produced our second show, and I think three people came. It was awful, but it created this desire to figure it out—to figure out how to tell the stories we wanted to be telling, with the people we wanted to be telling them with and for the people that we think theater is actually for.”
Although Company One is itinerant, meaning performances are held at various venues, the theater will always exist at the intersection of art and social change, according to drama teacher Mark VanDerzee, who serves as the company’s education director.
With this mission in mind, VanDerzee said that the path of Company One could shift alongside the evolving issues of social justice.
“For many years, we focused solely on racial equity. That’s hugely important, but that’s not the only place where inequity exists,” VanDerzee said. “I hope we continue to be on that forefront of conversation and be on the leading edge of identifying ways that we can challenge inequity.”
For Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) guidance counselor Kara Lopez, a longtime fan of Company One, the performances evoke a conscious awareness of how indispensable it is to understand the perspectives of others.
“Their plays make people think, and that, to me, is the bridge to evolving as a community: sharing different perspectives with each other,” Lopez said. “We all have different perspectives because we have different identities, and the more perspectives you have, the more clearly you can understand things.”
An especially impactful moment for Lopez was during Company One’s 2011 performance of “Neighbors,” a play that explores the history of minstrelsy while challenging the racial tensions that continue to pervade society.
“At the very end of the play, they turned the lights onto the audience, and the cast just silently stared at the audience. It was to make you feel the discomfort of being part of a system of oppression as it relates to race,” Lopez said. “Company One succeeded at getting people to think, getting people to think about where that discomfort comes from.”
Although performances such as these embody the mission of Company One, the theater also unites art with social change through various engagement initiatives and education programs.
Often, the performances are partnered with specific organizations that have a social investment in the themes of the play.
According to Shawn LaCount, the theater’s artistic director, these partnerships play a crucial role throughout the production of a show.
“We did a play years ago called ‘Dry Land,’ which was a play that dealt with women’s health issues and specifically issues around teenage abortion. We made sure that we partnered with places like Planned Parenthood and other local organizations so we were handling the sensitive material with accuracy and responsibility, with people who can moderate conversations, workshops and panels during the run.” LaCount said.
In terms of the theater’s education program, VanDerzee said that it has added value not only to the company, but also to the community by reaching out to young people, who are often the initiators of challenging inequity.
“Education programs have always been a part of our DNA as an organization. It just hasn’t ever been a question that we wouldn’t do it,” VanDerzee said. “It’s so mission-based for us in terms of our vision for a just and equitable Boston. How do you achieve that vision without working with young people?”
Besides the fact that Williams and VanDerzee are also educators at the high school, Company One has no affiliation with the school. However, the work that Williams and VanDerzee do at the high school directly coincides with their work at Company One.
For Williams, it means applying the same goals of raising awareness of social injustice when directing plays at the high school, such as the annual spring play.
“I’ve always wanted to do shows that were challenging an issue, so looking at stuff regarding the N-word, which we did with ‘Fighting Words’ last year. Looking at stuff regarding racial politics on a campus, which we did two years ago,” Williams said. “I really appreciate taking things that feel very much like hot topics and social justice issues and bringing them into a theatre realm, where we can watch something and then have some really great conversation about it afterwards.”
In addition to its far-reaching mission, Company One Theatre remains, at its core, a distinguished theater. It has won, among others, Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Awards and Elliot Norton Awards, the latter being one of Boston’s most prestigious theater awards. In 2017, the theater was named Best of Boston by “Boston Magazine” and Boston’s Best by “Improper Bostonian.”
Despite these accolades, however, it is Company One’s mission that truly creates a meaningful impact on the community, according to LaCount.
“The awards are really not why we do it. For us, what makes us unique and what makes me invested the company is that we have a really specific mission,” LaCount said. “We’re not making theater for theater sake. We’re not making theater for profit sake. We’re making theater with an idea that we can serve at an intersection of art and social change and hopefully find lots of different people to join us as we build a community to do the same.”