The Power of One: SO LOW Theater Festival Brings Solo Dramas, Comedies to the Stage

If you’ve seen a good solo show, you know how gripping it can be. An actor alone on stage, speaking directly to you, or so it seems.

Art House Productions’ inaugural SO LOW Theater Festival — solo works at a low price ($6 per show) — kicks off tonight with plays by Mark Williams and Summer Dawn Hortillosa. It continues through the weekend and includes an intriguing lineup of characters and tales, with 50 percent of each ticket sale going back to the performers. 

“It’s the simplest and most economical way people can experience theater at a very low price… one mic, one light, one person,” Art House collaborator reg e gaines, who conceptualized the festival, told JCI in August.

Hortillosa, a local playwright and journalist — and staff writer at the Jersey City Independent — debuts her 35-minute show Kookspeak tonight. The play will also be shown Saturday night, and is based on stories the West Side resident began writing last year. (Another Jersey City Independent contributor, Foreclosed columnist Gabby Creery, will perform her play Fore/closure Saturday and Sunday.)

Hortillosa describes her show as “monologues from the mouths of kooks,” people who live inside their heads. “Everything from people who daydream a lot to people who are delusional,” she says. “I have a very active imagination and all these weird things pop into my head — this is my way of taming some of those ideas.”

At first, she envisioned her play as a production for two actors or possibly more — but when she heard about the So Low fest, decided to streamline it into a one-woman show. Some of the pieces were already monologues; one of them, Talk, she wrote especially for the festival. Talk features Hortillosa as the Chilltown Chick, dishing on the local dating scene in various voices. With one, she channels “the most annoying girl in the world,” and with another, the sexiest. She calls these voices her “parlor tricks,” and says she’s excited to perform them at Art House.

Hortillosa gives a sneak peak of another piece, Senses, in a YouTube video. In the short, funny clip, Hortillosa is a starlet caught up in a televised romance with a soccer star-slash-one man band (played by John Feuerbach). Together, the pair perform what Hortillosa dubs the “greatest song ever written”: “You are really, really cute. You have a really nice abdomen. Do you work out?”

While it’s challenging to pull off several characters in a short window of time, Hortillosa says it’s not hard to get into the mindset of each character. Her biggest worry is whether she’ll look the part — and the petite Hortillosa changes the way she carries herself with each character, working to give her male characters a convincing dose of masculinity.

Hortillosa’s recent play Secrets, Love ran at Hoboken’s Monroe Center For the Arts and in New York at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival and featured a cast and crew of about a dozen people. After that experience, she says she’s excited to try this smaller style of production. “It’s just me… I like how straightforward it is and how pure it is,” she says. “There’s probably not going to be any work of mine that’s more purely my ideas, my art and my style.”

Kookspeak is showing tonight at 8 pm and Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10:30 pm.

Brooklyn resident Ismail Azeem describes his SO LOW Festival show, Rude, as a “50-minute-long nonstop runaway train.” The play, set in New York, explores real stories and real lives — Azeem based the main character, Johnny Burke, on himself and his cousin Tommy Burke. Johnny, a nighttime janitor, has elements of both — or what Azeem describes as a cross between a physical, earthly character caught up in a dark world and another character who’s more spiritual and “of the light.”

Tommy Burke “was a very well-known and charismatic rebel” in late ’70s-early ’80s Jamaica, says Azeem — a man he heard many stories about growing up.

A celebrated slam poet, writer and hip-hop artist of Jamaican descent, Azeem was born in New Jersey. He lived on the west coast for years, which is where he premiered Rude — then called Rude Boy — at the Bay Area Hip Hop Theater Festival. After a successful run there, he continued to develop the show, dropping “Boy” from its name and more than doubling its length. He has since performed it in venues from Los Angeles to New York to Cologne, Germany.

While music, hip-hop and poetry have taken him around the world, Azeem, who moved to New York a little over a year ago, says theater gives him a special kind of thrill. 

“I can feel it when I’m in somebody’s head,” he says. “The power of being able to touch somebody in their hearts and in their minds and know that I’m holding them with the words I’m saying and no music behind it, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s why I became an artist, it’s the reason why I write.”

Rude is showing tomorrow, Sept. 28 at at 9:30 pm and Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8 pm.

Alana Jackler’s contribution to the festival, Hurricane Alana, is the story of the apartment she bought in Downtown Jersey City and all of the trouble it’s given her — trouble that culminated in the home’s ultimate destruction by water in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene last year. 

Jackler was in Mexico when the storm hit and sent a rush of water and sewage into her ground-floor unit. One of her two cats was missing for more than a month. At the time, she didn’t even know what a sump pump was. 

The flood was the latest in a series of disasters or near-disasters at the apartment, and it sent Jackler packing — she now lives in Manhattan while she tries to sell the place, which has been repaired thanks to funds from FEMA.

“It’s about my search for a home, my search for love and what it means to be without a home,” Jackler says. The show is frequently funny, but performing it, as you might expect, is physically demanding — after a recent read-through, she says she needed a nap.

Hurricane Alana, directed by Perry Dell’Aquila, is showing Friday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 30 at 5:45 p.m.

All plays will be shown at Art House Productions, 1 McWilliams Place, 6th Floor.

The full lineup is below, courtesy of Art House Productions:

You Gotta Have Faith (or We’ll Disown You)

Written by Mark Williams, performed by Richard Kirkwood

Sept. 27 at 7 pm, Sept. 28 at 10:30 pm

A hilarious, honest and provocative account of what it’s like to be an atheist in a very Catholic family.

Kookspeak

Written and performed by Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Sept. 27 at 8 pm, Sept. 29 at 10:30 pm

A series of monologues from the mouths of people who live inside their heads.

Hurricane Alana

Written and performed by Alana Jackler

Sept. 28 at 7 pm, Sept. 30 at 5:45 pm

A funny and touching story about a girl’s search for love, a home and a good mold specialist.

Musical Theater for Asian Males (Only Edition)

Written and performed by Jonathan G. Galvez

Sept. 28 at 8:15 pm, Sept. 29 at 4 pm

One Asian man looks at the role of his race in theater, media, and society.

RUDE

Written and performed by Ismail Azeem

Sept. 28 at 9:30 pm, Sept. 30 at 8 pm

A poetic world where Demetrius has a spirit child in his hand, Hipsters attempt the great revolution, and televisions are manufactured to watch people back.

Going to America

Written and performed by John Watts

Sept. 29 at 5:15 pm, Sept. 30 at 3 pm

A Welsh boy immigrating to the fantasy of a new life experiences the journey we all take from childhood to adolescence. 

Fore/closure

Written and Performed by Gabby Creery

Sept. 29 at 6:30 pm, Sept. 30 at 7 pm

The riveting true account of a family’s turbulent journey down the rabbit hole of unemployment, poverty and the threat of homelessness.

Letters to My Mother (But Really for my Father)

Written and performed by Kate Kaiser

Sept. 29 at 7:45 pm, Sept. 30 at 4:15 pm

Sometimes, the most important conversation you can have is with someone who is gone.

Click, Start, Vroom

Written and performed by Daniel Wilson

Sept. 29 at 7:45 pm, Sept. 30 at 4:15 pm

A 17-year-old explains the first time he ever experienced the thrill of being behind the wheel.

The Shim-Sham Slam: A Dancer’s Manifesto

Written and performed by Ariel Seidman-Wright

Sept. 29 at 7:45 pm, Sept. 30 at 4:15 pm

Blending spoken word with dance, The Shim Sham Slam: a Dancer’s Manifesto looks at the highs and lows of dedicating your life to a near impossible dream.

Disclosure: JCI and NEW Magazine are proud media sponsors of the SO LOW Theater Festival.

Photos courtesy of Ismail Azeem and Alana Jackler

a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the The Wall Street Journal, and Agence France-Presse. She is also a former editor for Jersey City Independent.