Priyanka Shetty to perform seven roles in solo show '#CHARLOTTESVILLE' about 2017 rally

Michael Grossberg
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Priyanka Shetty performs in the 60-minute one-act "#CHARLOTTESVILLE."

When playwright-actor Priyanka Shetty moved from Columbus to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2016, she didn’t expect to write "#CHARLOTTESVILLE."

Abbey Theater of Dublin will present the Ohio premiere in a streaming production that will open Friday.

“My play is specific to Charlottesville, but we’re talking about America,” Shetty said.

Based on more than 100 interviews with Charlottesville-area residents, the 60-minute one-act weaves oral histories to dramatize the community’s response to the Aug. 11, 2017, protest rally in Charlottesville, which led to the death of Heather Heyer when a man rammed his car the next day into a crowd of counter-protestors.

“It’s about the city itself, seen through the lens of those two days,” Shetty said.

“I talk about the tiki torch rally, how the Alt-Right came to protest. ... The play has an ebb and flow. There are lighter moments so you have room for the traumatic moments, for people to take it in,” she said.

Director Joe Bishara, theater supervisor of the Abbey Theater, sees Shetty as a rising talent.

“She’s done a brilliant job creating a play that represents its title,” Bishara said. “No town should be defined by a singular event; she makes Charlottesville feel like a community of many different people who transcend stereotypes.”

Born in India, Shetty moved to Columbus in 2015 to pursue an acting and theater career.

After she took one of his CATCO acting classes, Bishara became Shetty’s coach and mentor. He directed her in CATCO Is Kids’ “The Kabuki Sleeping Beauty,” Evolution Theatre Company’s “Sticks and Stones” and Stage Right Theatrics’ “Ferguson.”

“He’s been important in the development of my new works and my development as an artist in America,” Shetty said.

After getting her masters of fine arts in acting at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, she returned to collaborate with Bishara on her autobiographical first solo play, “The Elephant in the Room,” for Evolution’s 2019 world premiere.

“We’re always creating because we have a beautiful balance of trust,” she said.

Bishara, in turn, admires Shetty’s work ethic and storytelling acumen.

“Priyanka can analyze culture from a completely different perspective because she came from the other side of the world,” he said.

Together, they have adapted "#CHARLOTTESVILLE" — first staged as a seven-actor, 80-minute ensemble piece in 2019 in Charlottesville — for its premiere here as a solo show.

“In this version, the connective tissue is the interviewer (Shetty), who’s now the narrator. It’s a stronger through-line amid so many different voices,” Bishara said.

Shetty developed a distinct voice and physicality for each of her seven roles.

“I’m excited about this new opportunity to play characters so different from who I am,” said Shetty, an Indian American immigrant, not yet a U.S. citizen, who now lives in Philadelphia with her husband.

“I’m just the medium. The ideas and opinions belong to the people who lived through the events when racial violence erupted in the city.”

One of her five fictionalized composite characters is a young white woman who moved from Louisiana and loved Charlottesville, only to later find her “rose-colored glasses” coming off, Shetty said.

Another, a young Black male who grew up there, is funny but “his sense of humor masks a lot of anger and pain,” she said.

Perhaps even more emotional is Shetty’s portrait of Susan Bro, who mourns her lost daughter, Heather.

“She’s the only real person I play,” Shetty said.

She views the piece, with several minority voices, as “timely and poignant” for Black History Month.

“It’s so important for us to remember and learn from history,” she said, “so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.”

At a glance

Abbey Theater of Dublin will present "#CHARLOTTESVILLE" at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and on-demand Feb. 21-28. Tickets cost $10. Call 614-410-4550 or visit dublinohiousa.gov/abbey-theater.

Actor-writer Priyanka Shetty in "#CHARLOTTESVILLE"