Audioplay review

By Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Shermona Mitchell, directed by Gin Hammond. Available through June 30, 2021; Book-It Repertory Theatre; $15; 206-216-0833; book-it.org

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“Reading it and living it are two different things!” exclaims Valerie, the 10-year-old psionic in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s audioplay adaptation of “Childfinder,” Octavia E. Butler’s brief tale of two warring factions of psychic-powered humans.

Voiced with the perfect mix of youthful boldness and vulnerability by actor Maya Flory-Barnes Salas, Valerie is somewhat traumatized and frustrated after her psionic mentor, Barbara, forces her to psychically endure the experience of Harriet Tubman guiding enslaved people to hard-won freedom.

After what essentially amounts to an unsatisfactory book report from Valerie, Barbara’s psionic projection (a tool I’m sure every teacher wishes they had at their disposal) of the terror and determination of those who fled slavery, helps the 10-year-old to connect with the story, something Barbara says is necessary to prepare Valerie for the difficult realities of a world where her psionic abilities put her in danger. 

Barbara fears her ragtag group of young psionics will one day have to fight for survival against a power-hungry organization hunting for new psionic soldiers to add to their ranks. After all, she used to be the organization’s child finder.

To Barbara, the parallels between Tubman’s leading her people to freedom and the liberation struggle of her own little community of young psionics are clear. And in the same way that Tubman draws a shotgun on her followers to jolt the fetters from their minds, Barbara wields her psychic powers as a weapon to hammer liberation into the minds of her students.

“How come they were so scared to go ahead and get free?” Valerie asks angrily after being released from the experience. 

And just as Barbara’s message is hammered into her students, so, too, as an audioplay, does the world and messages of “Childfinder” get into our own heads.

Although Shermona Mitchell’s adaptation of “Childfinder” is an audio adaptation of a book, this is not an audiobook. It is much more than a reading of Butler’s tale. It really is an audioplay — the first in an entire season of audio dramas from Book-It.

The listening audience is treated to a rich orchestra of sounds — crickets whirring, quiet scared whispers, rapid heavy breaths, the swishing of feet shuffling through tall grasses — and a careful selection of words spoken in Barbara and Valerie’s overwhelmed voices: “white people nearby,” “danger,” “close call,” “fear.”

Clever sound design that translates the sound of breaking glass, an actor’s distressed grunt and the sound of a loudly beating heart puts you right in the middle of the action. Nuanced voice acting connects you intimately to complex characters in the audioplay’s 33 minutes. 

Of course, no amount of voice training and sound effects substitutes for seeing a live production on stage, but under the direction of Gin Hammond, who brings to the adaptation her strong background in vocal coaching and voice acting, the “Childfinder” audioplay doesn’t try to be a substitute or imitation of a staged play. 

In fact, with much of the story’s dialogue taking place psionically in the minds of the characters, “Childfinder” is a perfect fit for the audio medium.

“When you have an audiobook and you have that delivery of the narration where it seems like it’s just you and the reader, there’s a wonderful intimacy that can happen there,” Hammond said in an interview. “Since so much of the play happens in the brain, telepathically, it has the potential to be that much more heightened.” 

Due to issues of race, gender and religion, Hammond says that as a child she never really felt she had a voice. Now, much like Barbara, who is mentoring a rogue faction of psionic youth, Hammond is working to help others find their voice. 

“I’m passionate about all the things that the voice can convey and helping people see that,” Hammond said. 

The power of the voice is clearest in Faith Bennett Russell’s gymnastic voicing of Barbara, who frequently not only bounces back and forth between speaking aloud and speaking psionically, but also often switches between a stern teacher voice with her young charges and her own gentler, more vulnerable inner dialogue. Russell seamlessly switches tones to portray a woman commanding an army of powerful psionics while simultaneously fearing for “my kids,” as Barbara calls them. 

With Barbara’s voice in your head, you ride these conflicting waves of fear, hope and warmth along with her. It’s a refreshing intimacy in this time of social distancing. 

“If you think about the standard distance between two Americans being just a little bit closer that would be standard audiobook intimacy, but with this [story] we go inside the brain,” said Hammond. “That’s the advantage that a story like ‘Childfinder’ has.”  

But it’s not all in our heads. 

A story about a divided society and a collective of empowered youth determined to fight back against a threat to their lives and freedom, “Childfinder” resonates with our current social reality as well. 

“It really seems like there is room for it to be a tragedy or for it to have a little bit of hope,” said Hammond. “With just everything going on BLM-wise and just human rights in general, I really wanted to not leave people feeling triggered and hopeless.”

It’s a fitting touch then that when a chorus of psionic voices seemingly reaches out to each other across unknowable distances and perhaps times, two messages come through most audibly — “I need you” and “We can do this.”