CARRBORO - Late last year Joseph Megel, director of UNC's Process Series, was helping Kane Smego and Will McInerney of the Sacrificial Poets create a theatrical adaptation of their "Poetic Portraits of Revolution," a collection of poems and first-person accounts they compiled on visits to Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring revolutions the past year.
In the midst of that, Megel learned that UNC's Morgan Family Writers-in-Residence series was bringing South African playwright Athol Fugard to Chapel Hill.
"That was a stunner," said Megel, who is also co-director of the Streetsigns theater company. "In the world of theater, Athol Fugard is a god. I said, 'We have to do a production of one of his plays.'"
Megel volunteered to direct a production of Fugard's 1961 anti-apartheid play "Blood Knot," in conjunction with the playwright's visit.
It didn't take him long to recognize the resonating themes the two projects shared.
"The two pieces seemed to be talking to each other across a great divide," he said.
Why not, he thought, bridge that divide?
The result is "Acts of Witness," which presents the two productions in rotating repertory March 2-20 at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
The two pieces are outwardly very different: "Blood Knot" is a traditional stage play, and "Poetic Portraits of a Revolution" is a multi-media piece featuring spoken word poetry, video, photography and sound.
But they both deal with the ways that individual human beings respond to life under oppression and injustice.
"Human action in the face of that kind of adversity is at the heart of both of these," Megel said. "Once you have those conditions, ultimately something is going to explode.
"There's a line near the end of 'Blood Knot' that asks, 'Is there no other way?' 'Poetric Portraits' finds the people on the streets talking about the revolution, saying, 'There is no other way.' So in a sense, these two works really do talk to each other. In a way, 'Poetic Portraits' picks up where 'Blood Knot' leaves off."
"Blood Knot" presents a pair of brothers who find their own attitudes toward each another distorted in terrible ways by the social system of apartheid in which they live.
"The play suggests that even with all the right intentions, if you live in that kind of culture long enough, ultimately you hurt each other and yourself," Megel said. "The brothers try to help each other, but it all unravels, because of the world they live in."
The Streetsigns production features J. Alphonse Nicholson, who recently appeared in PlayMakers Repertory Company's "The Parchman Hour," and Lucius Robinson, well known for his work on stages throughout the Triangle. Megel directs.
"Poetic Portraits of a Revolution" grew out of a trip Smego and McInerney, along with translator and intrepeter Mohammad Moussa and photographer Sameer Abdel-khalek, took to Egypt and Tunisia during the height of the uprisings that toppled the regimes in those two countries. They interviewed countless men and women on the streets and incorporated those interviews and their experiences into a powerful series of poems that were first aired on National Public Radio last year.
"Our goal was to humanize these historic events," Smego said. "We wanted to understand events through people instead of trying to understand people through events.
"We learned things about the complexity of the world that made us both more cynical and more hopeful at the same time. We also discovered how much our thinking had been affected by stereotypes, without our even realizing it. It shattered a lot of misconceptions for us."
Megel had heard their radio broadcasts, and he invited them to try expanding the work into a multi-media performance through the Process Series, which helps artists develop works in progress. With help from Megel and Elizabeth Lewis Corley of Streetsigns, Smego and McInerney have woven their poetry together with audio interviews, photographs and video footage of the participants in the revolutions.
"We're comfortable with the three-minute spoken word poem, but we wanted to push ourselves and really explore this in depth," McInerney said. "This is something we've embraced. And it's such an honor to able to do this in conjunction with a piece by Athol Fugard."Layers of meaning
Among the similarities both works share, Megel said, is that every reading, or viewing, reveals new layers of meaning.
"There are some scripts in which, as you go through them, you continue to find things that amaze you," Megel said. "That's the difference between good and truly great playwrights.
"With Kane and Will's piece, it's poetry, and almost by definition that means it employs layers of meaning. Each word conveys so much."
Both pieces also transcend the specific time and place they portray, he said.
"One of the things I wanted to do with 'Blood Knot' is not make it a historical play," Megel said. "It's allegorical. It's about these two brothers, yes, but it's also more than that. You're committed to the specifics, but what resonates with audiences is the understanding that, 'This is about us.'"
And that, McInerney, is what he hopes audiences will take away from "Poetric Portraits of Revolution" as well.
"What I hope comes through is the true feeling of inspiration you get when you see what people can overcome," he said. "When we were over there, we saw things that were sad, and we saw things that were uplifting. We saw people struggling, we saw people in conflict, we saw people embracing life. And it's twisting all those things into one rope that makes the revolution.
"That's what pushes us forward. We have to push forward. We have no choice but resilience."