By Lauren Jurgemeyer
The Survivors/Los Sobrevivientes written by Katie Bender and directed by Jerry Ruiz opens on the Theatre Center Mainstage on Oct. 29 and runs through Nov. 3.
The drama details the women, children and slaves that survived the battle of the Alamo. It is a collection of true stories about stubborn, powerful women and the circumstances that make them realize their strength.
Playwright Katie Bender said that what inspires her most to write are women striving against impossible circumstances, history with its contradictions and stories from her own life. She said that the script has been five years in the making. Bender said she first discovered the story of Susannah Dickinson during her time as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Jerry Ruiz, the director, and I started working together on the script about a year ago, which led to more revisions and now we’re here,” Bender said, “seeing the show in full production at Texas State for the first time."
The play follows three women who were present at the Alamo during the battle: Susannah Dickenson (Jessica Healey), Juana Navarro Alsbury (Taylor Childress) and Eva Baptiste (Jonaee’ Davis). Three very different, very headstrong women who bond under impossible circumstances and find solace in each other throughout their time at the mission.
“The characters in this play know what they want, and they fight for it despite the obstacles in their way,” Healey said. “They don’t make excuses because of where they come from, they instead focus on the future and what they can do with it.”
Susannah Dickinson and her daughter joined her husband in San Antonio in the winter of 1835. After the death of her husband and the fall of the Alamo, Susannah was sent by Santa Anna to the Texan’s camp in Gonzales with a letter to warn Sam Houston.
“She knows what she wants, she knows how to get it, and she does not quit,” Healey said about her character. “Susannah isn’t afraid to take up space, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She is fearless and unapologetic and I love her.”
Bender said she did a ton of research for this play. She became a docent at the Susannah Dickinson Museum so that she could have access to research material.
“I’ve interviewed historians, re-enactors, professors,” Bender said. “I’ve read direct accounts of the events surrounding the play including the diaries of José Enrique de la Peña and José Antonio Navarro, poured through artifacts, travelled to Mexico, San Antonio, Gonzales, read slave narratives, historical fiction, poetry from the era, news clippings and met with descendants.”
The script has been developed both histrionically and dramatically. The characters come to life in the round, and with the direction of Ruiz, brings the audience into the Alamo during the siege. Complete with cannon fire blasting in the audiences’ ears, The Survivors is an interactive experience for the members of the audience.
“History can seem dry, but it serves us to remember that people in our textbooks experienced the same urges, yearnings, anxieties, and desires as we do,” Healey said. “Their stories matter because they are fueled the same as ours.”
The women are not the only ones who face challenges in this show. Almaron Dickinson (Tanner Berg) struggles with finding his purpose in life and the decision of whether to put duty and his pride above his family. Cricket (Payton Russell), a young boy, lives in his world of naïveté and dreams of being a glorified war hero without considering the costs of war. Not to mention, Joe’s (JaVaun Butler) own turmoil of being a slave. All the men are fighting in faith for a faithless cause.
Still, there are more recognizable characters like Davy Crockett and Santa Anna in the show, but they are played by the same actor—Joey Herrera. Herrera’s juxtaposition of tall tales Crockett and the infamous Santa Anna add a chilling effect to the show. To me, Herrera particularly stood out as Santa Anna. His portrayal of Santa Anna interviewing the survivors adds antithesis to the show itself by placing grief and victory in close comparison side by side.
In addition to the onstage talent, the technical aspects are just as impressive. The sound (designed by Bailey Nance and George Sanchez) and lighting (designed by Max Wallace) added to the show immensely. The two elements aided in the immersive effect felt by the audience. In addition, Alexander Sterns, the costume designer, created beautiful period garments that are delicately detailed.
The set was designed by scenography graduate student Erin Lavespere. She said it was her first time designing a set in the round, which is very different from designing for a proscenium stage.
“At the start of the design process, it was a challenge to wrap my head around the movement of the players in an area with space limitations, multiple speedy scene transitions, and reinterpreting an already iconic structure,” Lavespere said.
She said she used several different resources for research, the primary source being Bender’s script. Lavespere said she became reacquainted with the story of the Alamo—the historical accounts as well as the folklore. Another resource for Lavespere was the artwork of Ana Mendieta.
The show as a whole is about finding and redefining your story as well as finding strength in yourself and in others. Themes in this show are still relevant today.
“Whether it’s 200 years ago in the Mexican Frontier, or modern day suburban America, we all need human connection,” Healey said. “We crave love, affection, safety and security with our loved ones.”
The Survivors/Los Sobrevivienes opens in the Theatre Center Mainstage on Oct. 29 and runs through Nov. 3, tickets are available online, by phone at (512) 245-6500 and at the box office an hour prior to the show.
Photos by Lauren Jurgemeyer