Interview with playwright and performer Priyanka Shetty by Debbie Minter Jackson, dramaturg
Editor’s note: Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Capital Fringe Festival (July 12 to 23), and DC Theater Arts has offered space to ten Fringe producers to describe their shows in their own words. Check back for more 2023 Capital Fringe previews!
We each have our own ideas of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 when a white supremacist rally turned deadly and sparked a national debate. #Charlotteville unleashes the power of witnessing those events with fresh insight and behind-the-scenes observations. Researched, written, and performed by Priyanka Shetty, an award-winning actor, director, and playwright, the show has been described as “a riveting blend of journalism and theatre” and will be featured in the 2023 Capital Fringe Festival.
#Charlottesville pieces together verbatim interviews with local Charlottesville residents to reconstruct the story of just what happened over those two days in 2017. Priyanka performed the show Off-Broadway, and her earlier work, The Elephant in the Room, was staged as part of the Edinburgh Fringe and on a tour of Scotland.
Priyanka Shetty has a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Virginia, which is in Charlottesville, and has served on the faculty of the University of Virginia’s Department of Drama. She currently lives in Philadelphia.
Why did you decide to write about the tumultuous events of Charlottesville, when the “Unite the Right” rally turned deadly and changed lives forever?
Priyanka Shetty: It actually took a while to even consider writing the play. It was such a significant event, I thought there’d be lots of plays written about it. I kept thinking who am I to consider doing this? I’m not even a citizen of this country — I’m South Asian! I didn’t think an outsider’s perspective would work. The more I talked to people about it, though, and they saw my commitment and interest, I started to consider it more seriously.
I was on summer break and not in town that August. When I returned to campus that fall, however, I noticed something had changed. I could feel it. It just seemed like it was okay to be racist in Charlottesville. There’s so much underneath the surface of interactions in the city that I needed to understand.
It was around that time that the university brought in Moisés Kaufman, founder of the Tectonic Theater Project, who spoke to students about his creation of The Laramie Project, which dealt with the murder of Matthew Shepard, using words from interviews in transcripts. That was a light-bulb moment for me. I said, OK — I didn’t want it to be my words [writing about the Charlottesville events], but I can do the work of listening, assimilating words of the community members and verbatim accounts.
There’s been so much media coverage and attention in the aftermath. What startling information did you learn while doing your research?
I discovered from talking and listening to so many people that even those who had followed the events closely weren’t aware of some of what they heard in the transcripts. As the participants shared their stories and observations with me, I was also learning about America. The experience was like a history lesson in the most exciting way possible. Rather than sitting in a class and reading about what happened in America, I could see issues playing out right in front of me through the interviews. I was getting to the essence, the roots of the country’s grappling with its own history, from a whole new perspective.
Unlike any other city, Charlottesville is the birthplace of this country’s constitution and democracy. One of the characters [in #Charlottesville] says Charlottesville and Monticello are cradles of this country’s civilization; those places provide a unique entry into understanding the DNA foundation that the U.S. is built on, what makes America what it is today.
When one of my Jewish interviewees said he could see signs of what happened in Nazi Germany happening here, I was terrified because that’s the same thing I felt when I saw images of the torch-lit rally and then heard the slogans they were chanting.
I bet that was chilling.
Absolutely, it was terrifying seeing the similarities, it was so vivid. Then I immediately sought out information about the “alt-right” wondering, “Why are these people doing this?” That’s when I realized how the wide scope of hatred expanded beyond visible Jewish targets but also to immigrants, women, sexual/gender identification, people of color — the markers are all there. Plus, I was unaware how much the authorities knew about the plans and events leading up to the rally. They knew about it for months — the kind of people coming and expectations for violence.
How has the Charlottesville experience and your creating this play changed your life?
The entire experience has affected my life in so many ways. Early versions of the show involved an ensemble with people from various backgrounds on stage. When I was approached about going solo, I was hesitant and intimidated — I wanted to honor the voices and characters represented in the transcript. Plus, I hadn’t done an American dialect before! But I decided if I’m ever going to do it, this is the time, so that’s when I revamped it into a solo piece.
So, yes, I can honestly say the project changed my life. It put me on a track where for all my artistic work — playwriting, screenwriting, all of it — I now have agency in the stories that I want to tell. Which I didn’t have before I got into writing and performing my own plays. Before that, I was the typical actor who went through the audition process for roles, most of the time, I must say, for stupid inconsequential stereotypical stuff that I had no invested interest in whatsoever. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get past being considered for the servant, goofy side-kick, even targeted to wear harem pants totally out of context. I was frustrated, in large part because not all of me was invited when I was playing a role. I couldn’t bring my full potential into the character. I was urged to be as white as possible to be accepted for the role. The more I tried, the more I realized that my full self will never be accepted into the roles I was offered. So a major shift happened when I stopped seeing myself through others’ lenses and instead, I took back my own agency to pursue the stories I wanted to tell.
Now I can freely choose what I should be spending my time on. I think that’s a great gift. From the interviews, I’m inspired by real heroes who live their activism day after day and make such a difference, totally in the background, unknown, unappreciated, who we’ll generally never know about. Nobody’s writing stories about them, their lives and sacrifices, but they keep working their principles. I want to acknowledge those principles in the work I do.
Why should people see #Charlottesville?
I think they should see it because although a lot has been reported about the 2017 Charlottesville events, all the news reports, articles and media footage, even documentaries, there’s still a gap that hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention. The focus has been on the facts of what happened, but I think what this play captures is the human experience, the lives lived, what people went through on that day and after. The show provides firsthand narratives from people who actually lived through it. It’s not a moment-by-moment account of what happened — that kind of recollection, our eyes would just glaze over. What’s really important is hearing the stories from real people. That’s what makes it real. The years and countless hours of interviewing people, listening to their stories, and transcribing their words, put me right there with them. And I think that’s what the audience will feel too when they see this play.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Playwright and performer: Priyanka Shetty
Director: A. Lorraine Robinson
Presented by Voices Festival Productions
The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.