Mix. Knead. Rise. Pound. Repeat.
Making bread is not difficult. Describing how to knead dough does not make for a very clever conversation. But somehow, Mary Lynn Owen managed to create a show about bread that was a scintillating masterpiece. Owen is an Atlanta-based playwright with a career spanning four decades and is the recipient of many honorable awards. She has been part of Emory University’s Theatre Studies Department since 2002.
On Friday, January 25, Owen gave a special performance of “Knead” for Oxford students. Indeed, students turned out in droves, filling up Tarbutton Theater and spilling out of the seats. The performance was organized by the Lyceum Committee and Oxford Theatre. “Knead” is Owen’s first play, entirely written and performed by herself.
The setting for the performance is a small kitchen with a cozy vibe. Owen’s costume of worn, checkered pajamas and rumpled hair amplifies the feeling of being at home. The play begins simply enough: a woman, unable to sleep and haunted by a task she set aside before she went to bed, wakes up to finish it off. Her task is to make bread, not just any bread, but the kind that her deceased mother used to make. She is frustrated by the recipe, which she feels is an inaccurate representation of her mother. The audience realizes that she has pounded the dough in frustration many times before, just as she does now.
As Owen kneads, she starts weaving a story that tells how she reached the point where she is now. She mysteriously removes cooking ingredients along with childhood relics from her kitchen cabinets. She tells the tale of her childhood, of her family, of her loves and losses. The tension in these otherwise serious stories is dispersed through moments of comedy that are uniquely inherent to the playwright. Owen’s reaction to her mother and grandmother’s rapid conversations in Spanish are deeply relatable to anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language. A few times, she blinks up at the audience in confusion and wonders, “Who are you people? What are you doing here?” Her self-awareness brings laughs to those watching.
Owen continues her stories using the process of bread-baking as a metaphor for her life. She speaks of growing up as an immigrant, a topic that struck especially close to home for those in the audience who hold similar experiences. Even for those who have never felt the reality of the immigrant experience, they are able to empathize with Owen’s human struggles. Her down-to-earth attitude and raw manner of speech belie a greater sorrow at missed opportunities to be close to family that has since passed.
One especially powerful moment comes when Owen describes her mother’s death in a car crash. She aggressively pounds the dough as the lights black out and the music swells and crashes into a sorrowful melody. This provides a jarring contrast to the scene that follows, in which Owen unexpectedly switches back to instructing on bread-baking. Audience members were left awe-struck and many had tears staining their cheeks.
At the close of the show, Owen opens the oven to reveal four loaves of perfectly-risen bread. The aroma of freshly-baked bread filled the entire theater. Until this moment, the audience was left in suspense wondering whether or not she was actually baking onstage.
Owen finished the play to a packed auditorium giving a standing ovation. Unlike most plays, audience members rushed the stage post-curtain call to snag a fresh piece of bread for themselves. The whole experience was uniquely heartwarming. Oxford students were lucky to taste Owen’s hard work and understand the importance of bread as a metaphor for life.