MIAMI — Radio dramas — and their present incarnation, the podcast — hit a storytelling sweet spot: they’re immersive enough to establish worlds of their own, but still require the listener’s imagination. In a program for his latest piece, Pang!, a triptych of live radio plays, Los Angeles director and artist Dan Froot writes: “I have always been fascinated by old-school live sound effects, which often involve actions … that don’t correspond visually with their aural effect … When there is a gap between what we see and hear, we are challenged to fill that gap with our imaginations.”
In Pang!, which was presented by the Miami Light Project last weekend, each character is voiced by one of three actors. At any moment, one of them — or Froot, or composer Robert Een — might spin a basketball to conjure the sound of a bicycle through mud, splash their hands in a tub of water to evoke a journey across a river, or switch, rapidly, between the voice of a cooing baby and that of an annoyed, pubescent teen. Everything moves fast. There’s a sense of slapstick here, until you become used to it. Then it’s seamless.
This is partly because Pang! is immersive, and good at engendering empathy. Initially, Froot — who was an artist-in-residence at the Miami Light Project — set out to describe the experience of families grappling with food insecurity. Over the course of four years, Froot and various members of his company interviewed families who dealt with these issues day-to-day — families who lived in Miami, Los Angeles, and Cedar Rapids, and had their own unique stories. According to an accompanying guide for the show, the participant families “were initially identified through a screening and consent process carried out by Pang!’s community partners in the social services sector.” In Miami, the partner was Touching Miami with Love and Curlee’s House of Style; in Cedar Rapids, Matthew 25, Jane Boyd Inc., and Horizons Family Services Alliance; and in Los Angeles, Hunger Action Los Angeles and LIFT-LA.
With the help of Pang!’s co-commissioner, Miami Light Project Executive and Artistic Director Elizabeth Boone, and three oral historians — Monica McGivern, Courtney Ball, and Luis Tentindo — Froot compiled the oral histories into six book-length pieces. Then, Froot and Company collaborated with one family from each city to create the 30-minute plays that make up Pang!, whose title refers to both pangs of hunger and emotional pangs in the heart.
The three families chosen: a family of four in Overtown, Miami — told through the perspective of seven-year-old Terrence; a couple and their daughter who escaped war-torn Burundi and settled in Eastern Iowa; and a single mom and her nine children in Los Angeles who were swindled into home foreclosure. At the performance’s end, members of the actual families who inspired the work came to the stage, at a round kitchen table, to discuss their involvement and how it felt to share their personal stories. Members of the audience joined them, discussing their own experiences with poverty.
Pang!, beyond its artistic endeavor, places focus on the aforementioned community programs — in hyper-meta moments during the performance, they’re even mentioned directly by the characters. This kind of meta-commentary forms the crux of Pang!’s humor and pathos.
We get to know the father from Burundi, who’s being interviewed for a podcast called Refugee Voices. Although his escape from Burundi is imbued with heroism, he’s less inclined to romanticize an act undertaken out of necessity. Furthermore, he asks, how is working two jobs, and struggling to feed your wife and child, a success story? Listeners need to hear stories of success, the reporter insists, so that other people will want to support refugees, too — they need, he explains, to feel like their support is useful. It’s a harsh truth about the disconnect between reality and myth; Froot is wise to expose this kind of gap, too.
Later, in Overtown, Terrence (voiced by two actors) asks Froot himself why the name of his friend, who was shot and killed, can’t be revealed. “It’s too holy,” Froot replies. He then asks the actors: Should we say his name? They do: Terrence’s friend, Lonnie Wesson, was, in real life, Marlon Eason, a 10-year-old boy shot and killed in front of his home in 2015. The actors then list the names of other Miami children and teenagers, shot and killed over the past five years, often as accidental casualties. That space between what’s heard and seen — a child played by an adult, for example — doesn’t feel dissonant; instead, it feels like they’re protecting the sanctity of those children who were senselessly lost.
In the play’s program, Froot writes, “Empathy can lead to the destigmatization of those living with hunger and poverty, which can lead to inter-class dialogue, which can lead to the political will to address income disparity in America.” So when Froot asks us to use our imaginations, and fill in the gaps between images and sound, his hope is that we’ll do so with heartfelt empathy.