In the new play TWENTYEIGHT, "six people ... come from different cities all over the country to this place called Settlement 40 where they build a space shuttle that's going to take them to a place called the Liberian Space Station, which was marketed to black families as a seperatist utopia," explains playwright Tyler English-Beckwith. "And [it's] set to the music of Kanye West."
"I wrote one of first monologues after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson," says English-Beckwith. "And I was already working on a theater piece that was based off Kanye West's music... [and] the two of them just came together, and so TWENTYEIGHT became a play about surveillance, racial violence, police brutality, and space."
As themes go, space might seem like a bit of an outlier in that group, but for English-Beckwith it's a natural fit. "I was heavily inspired by Kanye West's song 'Spaceship,'" she says. She'd also previously written a short play about space travel and grown up listening to jazz musician/cosmic philosopher Sun Ra, so an outer space setting just made sense to her.
English-Beckwith is co-directing TWENTYEIGHT with Matrex Kilgore. "My job... is to get Tyler what she wants," says Kilgore. "So it actually works well. We've been working on this project for three years... our shorthand and our trust really works well for us. And our ability to speak directly to each other."
English-Beckwith originally wrote the play in 2014, quickly enlisting Kilgore to help stage the initial production in 2015 at UT. Since then, they've done a few readings of the play in Austin and New York, but this August's production at the Vortex will be the first full-scale staging of TWENTYEIGHT.
Actor Delanté Keys is a much more recent addition to the project. "I'm brand new to it," he says. He'd heard some talk about the play from its previous live readings, but didn't really know what it was about. He became interested when he heard it was coming to the Vortex, where he's a company member.
"And I went, 'Afro-futurism? What's this about?' And it's turned into something entirely different than what I thought it was on paper. It's so much more than we could describe to you."
Keys, Kilgore and English-Beckwith are all hesitant to give too much away about the play. "We could tell you all about it," says Kilgore. "But it really is something you have to experience [and] feel. It's a visceral experience for the audience."