DURHAM – The first time Blake Dunkak read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” he was in elementary school.
It’s a pretty grim tale of dystopian science fiction, in which a boy learns both the vivid beauty and stark horrors of a lost world and the dark truths of his own seemingly bland society.
“It really stuck with me, the lack of so much in the community,” said Dunkak, a 15-year-old in 10th grade at Durham School of the Arts. “No sunshine. No colors. No love. There are feelings – it’s not like robots – but there’s nothing beyond happy and sad. That’s important.”
Dunkak makes his DSA theater debut next week as Jonas, the lead in this 90-minute theater adaptation of the 1993 novel.
The show’s director, DSA teacher Tom Nevels, was drawn to the material because of its similarity to the wildly popular “Hunger Games” novels.
“That whole genre of young adult fiction with dystopian societies and teen protagonists was really catching on when I first heard about it,” Nevels said. “People were passing around ‘Hunger Games’ and a teacher said ‘If you liked ‘The Giver,’ you’ll like this.”
He had never read “The Giver.” Intrigued, he sought it out.
“I read it and I really thought it was an interesting story,” Nevels said. “I could see the potential for it to be dramatized in some way.”
Bringing the bland world of the book to life, while also providing cues to alert the audience to the changes in Jonas’s point of view, gave students working on the show a chance for creativity.
Costumes, which look like a cross between surgical scrubs and Star Trek uniforms from the 1979 movie, are drab gray. Tables are gray. Chairs are gray. Cushions are gray. Comforters are gray.
Even red delicious apples are gray, until a tricky scene when Jonas is tossing an apple with a friend and one toss comes back in vibrant red.
It’s that pivotal moment that heralds the boy’s special ability, to “see beyond,” which makes him an ideal candidate to become the community’s next Receiver of Memory. Basically, he is destined to become the living storehouse of all the community’s memories, from mundane to extreme, from pleasuring to excruciating, so that his people don’t have to trouble their minds with it all.
The blandness – or “Sameness,” as it is known to those who dwell in the community – provided an enticing design challenge.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to put their brains together,” Nevels said. “We just painted everything in shades of gray so that when color is introduced into the story, it really makes the same impact for the theater audience as it would make for a reader.”
Another challenge students face in the show is the necessity to make frequent scene transitions without set changes or lights going down.
“We have a script with seamless scene changes,” Nevels said. “Our lead character can turn from one conversation to be in a different place, on a different day, in a different conversation. We’ve had to get comfortable with the conventions this play brings. We know we are in a few basic locations and we weave in and out of them like you weave in and out of memories.”
A pared-down performance of the show, which lasted one hour, took three prizes for design and an award for excellence recognizing Dunkak’s performance in a lead role at the North Carolina Theater Conference in October.
Dunkak said he would like to pursue acting as a career after graduation, although he’s not sure whether he would prefer theater, television or movies.
“I just want to do any kind of acting, really,” he said. “I like to be able to express emotions that I might not be able to do in my normal life and it’s great building a relationship with the cast.”
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WHAT: “The Giver”
WHEN: Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 15, 3 and 7:30 p.m.; and Dec. 16, 3 p.m.
WHERE: Durham School of the Arts Black Box Theatre, 400 N. Duke St., Durham
TICKETS: $10, at box office or online at seatyourself.biz/dsa