My high school years were an awkward, hormonal, flannel-clad hell on earth. One of my few saving graces was drama club. The stage was the one place where I felt like I belonged. Acting allowed me to forget the turmoil of my life. More than that, it gave me a sense of pride and allowed me to feel part of a community.

I haven’t acted in years, but I am thankful to live in a city where I can sit in the audience and find the same sense of kinship through a thriving and talented theater community.

In September, Charlotte will be treated to a novel theater production when Donna Scott Productions, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and the Charlotte Art League present “Eat the Runt” by Avery Crozier, a participatory theater experience that requires the play’s eight actors to learn all eight parts. Before each night’s curtain the actors will audition and the audience, using their smart phones, will cast them in more than 40,000 possible combinations.

“Eat the Runt” follows the character Merritt through a series of increasingly bizarre job interviews for a grants position at an art museum. The title of the play is inspired by Merritt’s theory on the survival of the fittest in which he recounts how his dog “ate the runt” of her litter.

I grinned like the Cheshire Cat as I watched the actors put their unique spins on the various gender-neutral roles during their first “off-book” rehearsal of this innovative, satirical play. Given our current political and societal climates, the play turns a timely comedic eye to topics such as political correctness, sexual harassment and religious persuasions.

In one scene the job interviewer tries to maintain her composure when Merritt, in this instance played by a white man, speaks of his African-American heritage and waxes poetic about the six black presidents of the United States.

The incredulity of the interviewer mixed with Merritt’s deadpanned responses made me laugh out loud – and, squirm a little.

During a break in the rehearsal, I asked the actors about the unique challenges of a play that will never provide the same performance twice. Of course, memorizing so many parts was at the top of all of their lists. However, considering the unique setup of this play, there seemed to be a shared dedication to each other and their audiences who will have a vested stake in each night’s performance.

“Besides learning the entire play, the most challenging part is really locking down the character choices while trying to stay in the moment,” said cast member Ericka Ross. “It’s hard to make those choices sometimes when you don’t know who you are up against. It’s staying present and keeping a truth to it.”

From the frenzied improv memory game warm up, through the two scenes that I watched, the room seemed electric. It was evident that the actors had great respect of each other and the enormity of taking on such a unique play. At one point I glanced over at director, Tonya Bludsworth, and she was beaming like a proud parent.

“Theatre is important because it allows us to sit together as a community and have the live real-time shared experience of storytelling,” Donna Scott said. “Attending local theatre is important because just like supporting local craft beer and buying local by seeking out local small businesses, it supports our neighbors and community members. It allows the money to stay here to help these businesses and arts organizations thrive.

“We have tons of creative capital in Charlotte and are happy to be able to showcase it in ‘Eat the Runt.’”

When I left rehearsal that night I was filled with a warmth and peacefulness that I hadn’t experienced since being on that high school auditorium stage so many years ago. I was right where I belonged.

See “Eat the Runt”

“Eat the Runt” is directed by Tonya Bludsworth and features Charlotte-based actors: Kevin Aoussou, Tracie Frank, Jennifer Grabenstetter, Andrea King, Erica Ross, Stephen Seay, Kevin Shimko and Stephen West-Rogers. It will run Sept. 7-23. The opening night performance will be at the Harvey B. Gantt Center and all other performances will be at the Charlotte Art League.

Get tickets to “Eat the Runt” at the Gantt Center, Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. here551 S. Tryon St.

Get tickets to “Eat the Runt” at Charlotte Art League Sept. 8-23 at 8 p.m. (dates vary) here. 1517 Camden Road.

Photos: Sosha Lewis

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