While in our modern minds the name may conjure up many different connotations, this year's SSFS Upper School's Fall Play, "the Caucasian Chalk Circle," is a fresh spin on an ancient Chinese folk tale and Biblical story centered around the Caucasus Mountain region. It’s a maze of ethical questions, challenging the audience and the actors on multiple levels. Brecht's play illuminates profound insights, explores the concepts of class and status, and actively engages the audience in spinning narratives of justice, love, and sacrifice.
The Upper School Play Production class will stage Bertolt Brecht's "Caucasian Chalk Circle" at SSFS in the PAC on Friday night, Dec. 15, at 7:00 PM; Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM, and Saturday evening at 7:00 PM. Friday and Saturday night performances will be followed by an audience Q&A with the cast. Please read below to find out more about the selection of this play, as well as the themes and issues it brings up.
Delving into the Play: Unraveling the Plot, Appreciating the Playwright, and Decoding the Title
At its core, the plot of this play is both timeless and simple. It draws from an ancient Chinese folk tale doubled with the Biblical account of King Solomon. The story follows a young woman who adopts an abandoned child from a different social class and raises him as her own. However, the tranquility of their lives is disrupted when the child's biological mother returns after two years, wanting her son back so that she can claim a significant inheritance.
This ethical conundrum lands them before an astute judge who draws from the wisdom of King Solomon in testing the mothers’ love and sacrifice for their child. He draws a chalk circle, places the child in it, and challenges the two women, saying, "The real mother will have the strength to pull the child to herself."
The setting, focused on the rough terrains of the Caucasus Mountains in the territory of Georgia, serves to illustrate the harsh realities of life spoiled by centuries of war. It thus sets a menacing yet captivating background for the play. The title derives its name from this setting, as well as the critical plot element of the chalk circle.
As a playwright, Bertolt Brecht brought a fresh wave into the world of theater by introducing the style of Brechtian theater, which engaged the viewer to be an active participant rather than a mere passive observer. This disruptive style aims to constantly remind audiences that they are watching a play, stimulating intellectual engagement and critical thinking about the story's context, and subsequently leading to a deeper understanding and analysis of societal issues depicted in his plays.
Aligning with SSFS's Mission and Its Resonance with Contemporary Times
The play, brought to life by our talented Director and Upper School Faculty member Christian Ely, was chosen for its alignment with SSFS’s mission and values, as well as its ability to foster critical thinking and reflection. Highlights include:
- Unraveling Ethical Dilemmas and Unfamiliar Genres: the play explores tough ethical questions set within an unfamiliar theater genre. Brechtian theatre, known for its intellectual engagement and challenging content, pushes the boundaries of traditional theatre and compels you to think deeply as the plot unfolds. To heighten the experience, the cast is offering an audience Q&A on Friday and Saturday night performances, serving as a catalyst for meaningful discussions and reflections.
- Cultivating Responsible Citizenship: The story told throughout the play fuels the journey toward responsible citizenship. As the plot unravels, so do the complexities of justice and consensus, shining a spotlight on the nurturing of civic sense and empowerment SSFS stands for.
- Equity, Justice, and Belonging in the Face of Strife: "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" presents thought-provoking questions such as: Who does society entrust with the responsibility of delivering justice? How should we, as citizens, respond to the encounter of injustice? And how can connections and common ground be found amidst stark disagreements?
The play facilitates critical questioning and contemplation around pressing issues that are as old as humankind.
About Christian Ely, the Director
With deep roots in theater, Christian brings to SSFS his invaluable experience. He has previously directed this play and serves to enrich the experience for the cast and crew.
Christian’s extensive background includes his breakout in professional theatre as a Williamstown Theater Festival intern, directing off-Broadway and regionally, running an acting program at NJ PAC, and much more. His passion for theatre education and creating inclusive spaces makes for a dynamic and robust environment for creativity and learning.
Speaking on his teaching approach, Christian shared, “I’ve been teaching theater for 30 years, and I really try to create an inclusive space that allows everyone to contribute to what happens on the stage. No one in the room has the best idea. Everyone’s ideas are valuable.”
Audience Advisory: Rating and Experience Expectations for the Play
Due to some coarse language, drunken characters, innuendo, and mild violence, the play is rated PG.
Brecht, an esteemed playwright, wrote this compelling tale during the trials of the World War II era. The narrative showcases a conflict between two local communities—on one side, the Collective Fruit Farm Galinsk, specialized in fruit cultivation, and on the other, the Collective Goat Farmers. Both groups are vying for control of a particular stretch of farmland—deserted in the bleak aftermath of a retreating Nazi presence, leaving the once-thriving village abandoned and forsaken. We want to acknowledge that this particular context can echo a bit too closely given rising anti-Semitism in our world right now. This play was chosen last Spring, and unfortunately, so much has happened on the global stage since then. We will lean into the discomfort of this context, much like the discomfort that the title itself may bring, and use it all as a catalyst for learning supported by the safety of our inclusive community.