In Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play Rooted, plants serve as metaphors for the connectivity between human beings. It is that connectivity that drove Justin Anderson to reemerge from a self-imposed hiatus to direct the play. Originally commissioned by Cincinnati Playhouse in 2022, the play will run at Horizon Theatre August 25 through September 24.
Rooted tells the story of Emery Harris (Maria Rodriguez-Sager), a plant researcher and YouTuber who lives in a tree, and Hazel (Mary Lynn Owen), her overbearing sister who has spent most of her life taking care of Emery. Their lives begin to change irrevocably when Emery’s internet followers begin showing up under her tree, chanting and singing and leading everyone to realize that Emery may have inadvertently started a cult. According to Anderson, the play begins in a pseudo-sitcom vein before “giving way to a much more profound message of belief and connection.”
The play marks Anderson’s return to the Atlanta theater scene after taking a break in the wake of Covid to tend to his own private life. “There was a burgeoning sense of needing to layer in some additional intentionality with how I was building a life instead of a career,” he says. However, when Horizon Theatre artistic director Lisa Adler reached out to him about directing Rooted, he was immediately drawn in.
ArtsATL sat down with Anderson to hear more about his choice to come back and the idea of connection in our disconnected world.
ArtsATL: What was it about this play that made it worth coming back to the theater?
Justin Anderson: This piece found me. Lisa at Horizon graciously asked if I would consider working on this show. I have a long standing relationship with Horizon. I knew it would have to be a pretty special story to get me to consider digging in the sandbox, so to speak, but upon first reading this script, there was something that was so deeply humorous, heartfelt and ultimately human about this story and these characters. In a way, I felt like opening myself to exploring this piece was honoring where so many of us have been in the last couple of years: in this forced disassociation with people and these severed connections due to Covid.
ArtsATL: It’s a very funny concept as well. I love the phrase “inadvertently started a cult.”
Anderson: Yes! And obviously in the play, it’s treated as a real thing, but I think it’s metaphoric for a variety of other things. These things that we as a society latch onto, that we give a ton of attention to, that may not actually be related to the root inspiration of what actually started it. I think that’s also part of what [Laufer] is exploring in this piece — trying to figure out the value of slowing down and creating a quiet space of solitude when you’re surrounded by chaos. It’s almost like Pandora’s box; like it’s sort of gotten out of control, and you have to ask “Is it possible to sort of reclaim that? To find any sense of self in the midst of the storm that seems to be brewing?”
ArtsATL: I’m hearing a lot of plant imagery and metaphors. Is that something that’s particularly explicit in the play?
Anderson: It doesn’t hit you over the head. The beautiful thing about how Deb has
written this play is that you could think that it would be very on the nose. I don’t think it is. I think it’s delivered and framed in such a well-balanced and — I keep using the term “grace-filled” way. It’s like this delicious “a-ha” for an audience as they’re watching it. It makes sense when it needs to make sense. Of course, this is a metaphor for life, but it’s not like there’s anything didactic about it. It’s not written in a structure where it feels like I’m teaching you something. It’s much more about discovering and having this personal “a-ha” based on how it’s resonating with you at the time.
ArtsATL: What do you think it was about this play that made Lisa Adler think of you?
Anderson: I’m just at a point in life where I don’t really enjoy cynical work anymore. For me, it’s more like trying to approach life with open hands rather than clenched fists. That’s the kind of stuff that really gets me going, and within that there’s so much complication. You’ll see with the piece. There are moments that are very funny and others that are hard. It’s much more of a reflection of a normal, everyday life. Certainly there are heightened circumstances around it, but it’s rare that any of us go through one day where it’s completely comedic or completely dramatic. There’s always a pendulum swinging. I think that’s what it was. I think she understood that there was a lot of heart and thought it would resonate with me.
ArtsATL: What would you like for audiences to take away from this play?
Anderson: I would say I would love for them to be left with an invitation to investigate their own sense of meaning and belief. Where do they sit with life, and has that changed in the last couple of years? I would love for them to recognize the struggle for being present in a world that constantly seems to be moving. I invite people to come with an open heart.
Luke Evans is an Atlanta-based writer, critic and dramaturg. He covers theater for ArtsATL and Broadway World Atlanta and has worked with theaters such as the Alliance, Actor’s Express, Out Front Theatre and Woodstock Arts. He’s a graduate of Oglethorpe University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Houston, where he earned his master’s.