Expect the unexpected: Ko Festival returns to Amherst College with new theatrical productions

  • The Ko Festival at Amherst College brings back its popular story slam on July 20. Photo courtesy of Ko Fest

  • Samite, the stage name of musician/artist/peace activist Samite Mulondo, will present his one-man show “Lessons in Humanity” at Ko Fest Aug. 2-4.  Photo courtesy of Ko Festival

  •  Debórah Eliezer, of the California-based foolsFURY Theater, looks at the complicated history of her father in her show “(dis)Place(d),” which takes place July 26-28.  Photo by Wendy Yalom/courtesy Ko Fest

  • Hilary Chaplain (at right) performs July 5-7 at Ko Fest in “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt,” a new take, with some darkly comic moments, on the Holocaust and one woman’s experience in a concentration camp. Photo by Kasia Chmura/courtesy Ko Fest

Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 03, 2019

For the past 28 years, the Ko Festival of Performance at Amherst College has been a place where live theater thrives alongside audiences looking to mine the artistic themes and nuances of each work, through post-performance discussions that sometimes end up being longer than the actual productions.

Sabrina Hamilton, the longtime artistic director of Ko Fest, says post-show discussions as well as engaging performance pieces, all connected with the theme of “human habitat,” are in store for this year’s version of the program, which takes place at Amherst’s Holden Theater beginning this Friday and runs through August 4. Five theatrical productions are on tap, as well as the festival’s popular story slam.

But for Ko Fest, a number of theatrical works are made “from scratch,” Hamilton explained, with the shows developing over the course of one to three years and then making their debut at the festival.

Hilary Chaplain & Company’s “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” will open the festival this Friday and run through Sunday. The production is centered on a Berlin cabaret performer sent to a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. There she befriends a rat named Pavel (played by a puppet), which lives at the concentration camp and is in love with the cabaret singer.

Hamilton, who’s also the lighting designer for the production​, said even though the piece is set during the Holocaust, there are moments of levity through the Berlin cabaret singer’s act.

“It’s not really a depressing show,” she explained.

The production utilizes three layers of plexiglass with a camera mounted on top featuring “flat puppetry,” Hamilton said, adding that the Parisian-style puppets are then projected onto a screen.

For Ko Festival’s second week, an autobiographical play by Katie Pearl, “OK, OK,” will make its world premiere July 12-14 as it grapples with a deadly moment from history.

The story is about Pearl’s reckoning with racism in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where in 1921 the town’s black residents and businesses were attacked by white residents in an infamous race riot also known as the Greenwood Massacre. Some 35 square blocks of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, called the “Black Wall Street” in its day because of its prosperity, were destroyed and at least 36 African American were killed (some estimates put the death toll as high as 300).

Despite the serious topic, there’s a lot of humor in the play. Hamilton said “OK, OK,” features a Greek chorus of four women, all on laptops.

“There’s a giant clothespin that stands in for [Pearl’s] mother,” she added. “But it’s a very funny and witty way of looking back at race and different things that aren’t on your radar screen growing up as a kid someplace. Now, as you’re becoming more aware, you look back at it and say, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”

On Saturday, July 20 at 8 p.m., Ko Fest will host a story slam featuring first-person true stories with the festival’s theme in mind, followed by Mettawee River Theater Company’s outdoors production of “The Ring Dove” on Sunday, July 21 at 8 p.m. “The Ring Dove” is an all-ages production based on the classic tale from India, which will be performed at night under the stars with puppets, masks, and live music.

For July 26-28, FoolsFURY Theater and writer/performer Debórah Eliezer will stage “(dis)Place[d],” which the Ko Festival describes as “a revelation of identity found in the history of Deborah’s father, an Iraqi Jew, member of the Zionist underground refugee, Israeli spy, and immigrant to America.”

Hamilton said “(dis)Place[d]” comes from San Francisco, California, where foolsFURY and Eliezer are considered stars of the theater community and host a festival, FURY Factory, that’s similar to Ko Fest.

“I’ve been trying to get them to come for years,” Hamilton explained. “We finally have the right show. [Eliezer] has just a killer line that her father says, which is this whole story about keeping cyanide in their socks as members of the Zionist underground. We could technically call him a terrorist, but for her he was ‘Dad.’

“He came from this culture that doesn’t exist anymore,” Hamilton added. “He was a Jew in Iraq and that’s a 1,000-year-old culture. Now there are 10 Jews left in Iraq. He was from a culture that was completely wiped out.”

This year’s Ko Fest concludes August 2-4 with the one-man show “Lessons of Humanity” by Samite, (full name Samite Mulondo), a musician, artist and peace activist originally from Uganda. “Lessons of Humanity” offers a mix of his African music and stories of growing up in Uganda during the genocide committed by Idi Amin. Following his Amherst performances, Samite will appear at the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival Aug. 9-10.

In addition to its theatrical productions, Ko Fest is hosting three workshops. There’s a toy theater and puppetry workshop by John Bell and Trudi Cohen from July 8 through 13; “First Person: Crafting Your Story” with Gerard Stropnicky from July 15 through 20; and “Unlocking Inspiration: The Vital Act,” a workshop led by Debórah Eliezer from July 29 to Aug. 3.

The Ko Festival is meant to be an adventurous undertaking of theater and the arts for audiences, according to Hamilton. “It’s kind of like a little entertaining think tank for five weeks,” she said.

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com.

For more information about the Ko Festival visit, kofest.com.