April 2–21, 2024

Wilma Theater spoofs Asian cultural ignorance with a wall of trash

April 10, 2024

Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” is a hodge-podge of Asian cultural references to spoof audience awareness.

Peter Crimmins
Listen to interview here

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The set of the Wilma Theater’s production of “The Good Person of Setzuan” looks like a pile of trash, because it is.

Bicycle parts, broken furniture, an industrial ventilation fan, construction fencing, an empty banana box, an old hand-drawn water pump, pex hosing, etc. The proscenium curtain is a patchwork of discarded clothing stitched together by hand.

Set designer Steven Dufala sourced much of the material from Revolution Recovery, an industrial recycling center in Holmesburg on the Delaware River where his brother and occasional artistic partner Billy Dufala founded the artist-in-residence program, RAIR Philly.

After the run of “Good Person” most of its set will return to Revolution Recovery and re-enter the recycling stream. In an industry that typically throws everything away when the sets are struck at the end of a play, Dufala intends this to be a zero-waste production.

“I’ve done shows where I’ve been horrified because at strike they’re like, ‘You’ve got 20 minutes to get whatever you want to keep out of the set. It’s going in a dumpster,’” he said.

Dufala did not build a set based on predetermined design drawings, but rather improvised how it would look and function based on material he finds in the trash.

It’s a backward way of thinking that could be a more sustainable way of making theater. Nathan Renner-Johnson, director of the set building nonprofit Philadelphia Scenic Works, said letting materials determine the design goes a long way toward sustainability.

“If we’re trying to do this exact right thing, exactly as it’s been drawn, it really does take time and money,” he said. “But if it can be more like letting the art inspire you — I think of Bob Ross where it’s, like, ‘You just tap the brush a couple times and, wow, it looks like happy trees.’”

In this case, the aesthetic of trash is what director Justin Jain is going for. His version of “Good Person of Setzuan” is set in a Filipino trash slum. The Philippines is one of the world’s biggest polluters of water-borne plastic, where whole communities are based on the economics of picking through trash.

Jain, who is Filipino, said the trash on stage serves a creative function just as it does in the Philippines. It’s where actors find their props, where on-stage musicians reveal percussion elements, and where secret passageways give characters entrances and exits.

“To us Westerners —First World folks — we see a cardboard box and all we see is a cardboard box,” Jain said. “But the ingenuity and adaptation that people who live in that environment see in a cardboard box is really exciting to me. Our stage may at first glance look like disorderly junk, but it has a curated sense of necessity.”