85 minutes. Seven characters. No intermission. One actor. ‘Bo-Nita’ shows the value of a child’s worldview.
Bo-Nita has a story to tell you. Buckle in — because it’s kind of a doozy.
The 13-year-old St. Louisan has just found her ex-stepfather’s dead body on her bedroom floor. To complicate things, her mom has just come home with the latest in an endless string of boyfriends (by her account, this is No. 47. But who’s counting?).
The three now find themselves, however unwillingly, bound by their unfortunate situation. Partners in perhaps-literal crime.
Together, they must answer a tough question — one that unites all loving families:
What do an adolescent daughter, her mom and her married boyfriend do with the dead ex-relative in the bedroom?
A story like this calls for a masterful raconteur. To fully understand the significance of the situation, the listener must first hear myriad tangents, back stories and anecdotes to put things in context.
Some spot-on impersonations of the story’s seven pertinent characters can’t hurt, either.
Enter Bo-Nita. Her telling of this wild, tangential tale, unfolding with equal parts humor and heart, is the basis of “Bo-Nita,” a one-woman play by Elizabeth Heffron and Urbanite Theatre’s season-closing production.
Playing Bo-Nita is Terri Weagant. For the performance, she’ll be onstage for 85 minutes — without intermission — weaving together this tangled web of familial dysfunction and untimely demise, as told through seven characters.
And she’ll be alone.
A SHARED EXPERIENCE
Weagant is no stranger to one-woman performances. It was one of the first things that inspired her to pick up acting. Growing up in small-town Washington state, next to sports, she says theater — and reading about theater — was among the limited options for childhood entertainment.
She read the handful of plays in her local library religiously, learning them front to back. One of her favorites was “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” a one-woman stage show written for Lily Tomlin.
When Weagant moved to Seattle to study acting at Cornish College of the Arts, Tomlin’s revival of the show was the first performance she saw. And when she took the stage in the first solo show of her own, Weagant returned to the play that first grabbed her interest as a child.
“I was always drawn to solo performance,” she says. “The dance you do with the audience, it’s a whole different relationship, especially if the play has direct address. When you’re working with the fourth wall, and it’s you and the other actors, you almost have to forget the audience is there. But in solo performance, they’re your scene partner. The work doesn’t exist without them. When I did ‘The Search for Signs,’ I could feel the audience breathing with me. It was this amazing shared experience I had never had before.”
NO SMALL TASK
“Bo-Nita” marks her sixth solo show, and she says the challenge and thrill is just as exciting as ever.
Without fellow cast members to shoulder the load, how exactly does one tackle nearly an hour and a half of lines, character development and storytelling?
Of course, there are the more rote aspects of the process. She’s devoted the past few months to simply memorizing the sheer volume of dialogue that comes with a one-woman show. Late-night memorization drills in her bedroom and daytime walks in the park, script in hand, have etched the lines into her mind.
But inevitably, a time will come when Weagant will lose her place — the dreaded forgotten line.
Here, she says, is where the crucial, albeit unseen, collaborative process of solo performance comes into play. She and the play’s director, Kirstin Franklin, work together to create what they like to call mental mile markers. These work as footholds to lead Weagant through the story’s arc.
When Bo-Nita addresses the audience to explains her mother’s opportunistic dating habits (The current boyfriend happens to be a tile salesman; as luck would have it, the family is in the market for a new kitchen floor), the anecdote lets the audience in on a slice of Bo-Nita’s life. But it also reminds Weagant what comes next.
“The play revolves around this one story,” says Franklin. “There are lots of diversions along the way, but everything is working toward telling Bo-Nita’s overarching story. As director, my job is to set those spots along the way. Those anchors to hold onto are the only thing that can save you in a solo show.”
“You’re performing without a net,” adds Weagant. “And it’s the biggest net. Nobody else is coming out on that stage. It’s just you. Of course, you’re thinking, ‘What if I forget what comes next?’ And that will happen. But you have to trust that all the collaboration you’ve done will buoy itself. The second you start to question whether you have it is the second it all crumbles.”
BRINGING IT ALL TO LIFE
Now that the memorization is out of the way, Weagant’s favorite part can begin. Rehearsals are underway, and the lines are no longer just words on a page. She’s able to put her training, including her work as a dialect coach, to use, bringing the characters to life.
She likens it to learning a piece of music.
“Now I can start to jump into the bodies, voices and spirits of the characters,” she says. “I can hear the rhythm of each character’s language. It’s like a song; once you find that rhythm or melody, it’s so much easier to memorize than text. With any acting, the lines never really come until you get to embody them.”
A show like this isn’t just a change of pace for actors and directors. Stripping away the cast, the experience becomes much more intimate for the audience, as well. In this play, Weagant speaks right to the audience. By its nature, it asks more of the viewer than a traditional play.
“You should have palpable sense of excitement,” says Brendan Ragan, co-founder and co-artistic director of Urbanite Theatre. “Anything could happen.”
“Bo-Nita” offers audiences no tidy ending. There are questions left unanswered. But in telling a story of struggle and hardship, Bo-Nita remains oblivious to the significance of her own struggles. She’s too young to grasp it.
In a rare uplifting ending for an Urbanite production, “Bo-Nita” offers hope in the face of adversity. It’s a reminder that a child’s worldview can span beyond naiveté to offer true insight.
Bo-Nita has more than a story to tell. She has perspective to offer.