City Gate Productions Presents One-Woman Show in Astoria
By Stephanie Meditz
Actress and playwright Shawneen Rowe will honor her late grandmother Rosa by showing modern audiences the relevance that her story still has in their lives.
She will travel back in time and experience her grandmother’s story firsthand in “Crooked Shadows,” a one-woman show directed by Erin Layton on June 2 to 4 at The Broom Tree Theatre in Astoria.
In the opening scene, Rowe describes her grandmother as “the best book [she’s] ever read” and takes the audience on the journey of her life, including the first influenza pandemic in 1918, WWII and the Great Depression.
“I think we sometimes forget that there are individual stories that make up these major events, so [I hope] to kind of put a face on what those experiences were like,” she said in an interview.
She also said that her grandmother’s loss of her father at an early age and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man were common threads throughout most of her experiences.
“There are a lot of bridges and parallels to things that we have all experienced over the past three years,” Layton said in an interview. “Our first pandemic of the century and understanding a little bit more about how domestic violence presents itself, and family dynamics, family structure, generational sin, how all those things are as…relevant today as they were when Rosa was growing up.”
With two daughters of her own, Rowe finds it important to tell women’s stories of abuse.
Before her grandmother’s death, she collected recordings of her grandmother telling these stories, thinking she could use them someday.
“It was a matter of recording the story, recording the laughter and the joy that I felt or the pain that I felt when she told me the story and sewing it together in a compelling way for the audience,” she said. “And I feel like it’s a project that may never be finished.”
Rowe began writing “Crooked Shadows” before the Covid-19 pandemic, but after living through it, she included more details about the pandemic that her grandmother lived through.
“That’s where the conversations really start with audience members. It’s ‘I can see myself reflected there,’” she said. “So I feel like it’s this kind of amoeba of a story that continues to grow with the core of it always focusing on my grandmother.”
Layton, who is a solo performer herself, will make her directorial debut with “Crooked Shadows.”
“Having the opportunity to be on the director’s side of the table as opposed to the performer’s side, I not only selfishly see how much I know and understand as a performer and a storyteller, but really have an opportunity to put on an objective lens about storytelling structure,” she said. “I feel very privileged to be in the position of director for Shawneen’s piece…Shawneen is very adaptive. She is herself a seasoned actor. She’s also an excellent writer.”
“Crooked Shadows” is also Rowe’s debut with City Gate Productions.
“[Layton] has really been a wonderful sort of theater angel to shepherd me through this because I hadn’t had a director before,” she said. “I had performed it all over the place, but I had only been doing it with my own eyes…it doesn’t really work that way when you’re inside the play and you can’t see inside.”
Layton said that audiences are generally drawn to extravagant, flashy productions and often miss out on the powerful storytelling that can come from a single performer.
“It’s a gift. We have an opportunity to really engage with this one person and to listen,” she said. “And I think listening is altogether lost in our society, just really leaning in and actively engaging with someone’s story.”
The play’s set consists almost entirely of real memorabilia from Rowe’s grandmother, including her wedding gown, bed linens and all the handkerchiefs that she gave her granddaughter as a child.
During the play, Rowe pulls items and story starters from her grandmother’s “hope chest.”
“Things like that can resonate with an energy that adds to the flavor of something,” she said.
Rowe hopes that audiences will leave the show with a “warm, fuzzy feeling,” but also the desire to have conversations about women’s place in society.
Writing the play allowed her to “[generate] conversations as an activist regarding domestic abuse or women not having a voice or all of these things that…we think are so much better, but we seem to be backsliding a little bit.”
Tickets for “Crooked Shadows” are available for $15 at https://www.citygateproductions.org/nextshow.
The June 2 and 3 shows will begin at 8 p.m., and the June 4 show is at 3 p.m.
“I loved my grandma so much,” Rowe said. “It’s about her life and how we can look at people’s lives through the lens of our own and what we can learn.”