Death comes to you in a dream. They tell you God is real and that you are set to die soon. You are allowed to bring someone with you. What do you do? This is the premise “Everybody” places its audience in. The 2017 work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a fresh take on the play “Everyman,” a religious morality play from 1500. Prior to that, it existed as the Dutch play “Elckerlijc.” UNC Charlotte’s Department of Theater tackled the historical play from Oct. 31 - Nov. 3. While its production of “Everybody” as a postmodern adaptation looks fresh on the outside, its roots as a morality play are still strong. It has a clear message. Like The Usher (Thurston Williams) tells the audience before it begins, “Everybody” is trying to teach us something.
“Everybody” begins with God. He is frustrated with humanity for laughing at him and not taking him seriously, unsure why they act the way they do. Thus, he tells his assistant Death (Amber Coleman) to take a census of Everybody. Everybody will have to prepare a presentation on everything they did and why so God can learn how his creation became so misguided. The plot is in motion.
The play includes the audience in its performance. The show creates the illusion that it randomly picks its cast during the play. When Death calls to Everybody to form a census, eight people seated in the audience respond. These actors (listed as “somebodies” in the program; Blake Briles, Drew Coley, Sabrina D’Aiello, DJ Fourquet, James Michels, Miracle Okafor-Paul, Migdalia Ramirez, Mia Todarello) collectively respond to the call and panic. They aren’t ready to die. Can they bring somebody with them? Death agrees, gives them time to find someone and disappears. A lottery cage is wheeled onto the stage and The Usher tells the audience that from here, the actors will randomly select roles. One becomes the single character of “Everybody.” The others take on roles such as “Friendship,” “Cousin” and “Stuff.”
The Usher acknowledges that audience members may not buy that the roles are randomly assigned (I don’t); we have no way of knowing if the numbers selected truly symbolize different roles. It could be all for show. Whether or not they are truly randomly assigned isn’t the point though: the play wants us to believe they are (so much so that it lists Everybody as played by Himself/Herself/Themself in the program). It wants to emphasize that Everybody represents every person in the audience; it is a story about all of us.
The play then follows Everybody’s desperate attempts to find someone to bring with them on their journey. Friends and family (quantified as Friendship, Kinship and Cousin) both reject the offer. Everybody panics and wonders whether their life even mattered; why bond with anyone if you’re going to be alone in the end? Cousin tells Everybody that it is selfish to expect someone to go with them just to help them with their presentation, especially if that person will then have to make their own presentation too. Death is something we have to suffer through alone. Everybody relents and attempts to bring their Stuff with them instead. Stuff refuses. In the end, Beauty, Strength, Mind, Understanding and the Five Senses all abandon them as well. Late to the show are Love (Artis Hill Jr.) and All The Shitty Evil Things (Michael Lee) Everybody brought into the world. These are the two that eventually travel with Everybody to their death, providing both a sense of comfort and uneasiness.
Staging and design-wise, “Everybody” utilizes Robinson’s Black Box Theater in incredibly unique ways. A runway-like stage sits in the middle, dividing the audience into rows on either side. On one end is a projector screen to flash background images onto, on the other is a curtain that actors stand behind to create shadows. Later, part of the runway sinks into the floor, showcasing a red-lit and smoking pit to the afterlife. The disconcerting setup works and makes the show feels more involved with the audience; there is no physical “fourth wall” to break. The costume design also shines here. Death’s white business blazer with black feathers, Time’s clock skirt and the intense fraternity brother vibes of Cousin and Kinship are highlights.
The acting is also especially strong. Every one of the “somebodies” brings their all, whether it’s while being wheeled around in a shopping cart as Stuff or flipping burgers on a grill as Cousin. Coleman’s Death balances being both intimidating and personable, making her frustration with both God and Everybody clear.
However, there is a lot of social critique happening at once in “Everybody” and not all of it works. The play itself is incredibly dense, full of monologues and long speeches about the meaning of life. I longed to sit down with it and reread the lines; there were a number of times I felt overwhelmed and left behind as the play moved from one point to another. Thus, any additional critique beyond the central themes of the play, such as some modern riffs on social media, Buddhism and racial microaggressions (as well as a dance scene that utilized glowing lights on a dark stage) felt out of place and confusing.
The main point of “Everybody” remains the same though: All things fade. Most of what we think matters in life fails to in death. It’s a journey we make alone, scared and with only the love in our life left to guide us. The bad things we do will haunt us forever. It may not be a premise that audience members accept or buy into, but “Everybody” hits them over the head with it. The Usher tells the audience that even though “Everybody” may seem to be a play about death, it is ultimately a play about life and how “Everybody” believes we should live it. The concepts and questions it poses are eternal ones. Why does life matter? What happens when we die? Is there a Creator who cares for us? While “Everybody” doesn’t always hit the mark, it makes a valiant attempt to answer them. The questions aren’t new but they remain just as impactful.