School of Visual Arts alumnus brings subculture to the forefront in new play

Stephanie Swindle
July 18, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the curtain goes up at the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) on Aug. 12, Penn State alumnus Dahn Hiuni will be ready. His play, "Murmurs & Incantations," will be one of only about a dozen full-length plays featured at the festival. The work is a multimedia production that “tells the story of a gay New York performance artist with creative block who fatefully travels to Poland in an attempt to revive his art career, only to be further confounded by the disapproving ghost of his grandfather, a rabbi killed in the Holocaust.”

“It is such an honor,” said Hiuni, who earned both a master of fine arts in visual arts from Penn State in 1996 and a doctorate in art education in 1995. “Who would have ever thought? All my dreams are coming true!”

Hiuni, an artist, playwright, activist and teacher, combines his experiences in each realm to create art that asks broader, philosophical questions. There are also some biographical similarities between Hiuni and the main character in the play (both are Jewish, gay artists with family members who died in the Holocaust) that lend themselves to Hiuni’s desire to “dignify and redeem” the past and “stand witness” to history.

Hiuni frequently engages with the topic of gay culture in his work, with one of his formative performance pieces taking place on the Palmer Museum of Art Plaza on campus during World AIDS Day in 1994.

“Being a gay man has defined my identity as an artist. In some ways, I’m lucky because I have this big, looming identity in the room. I sometimes wonder, ‘What do straight people write about?’ he jokingly said. “I have this gift I’ve been given, to belong to several subcultures and communities, and it naturally informs my work.”

Creatively channeling his experiences helped Hiuni through an adolescence of “terror and panic,” during the early days of AIDS.

“When I turned 16, when most are ready to date and explore, I was suddenly faced with this plague, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through high school. I think that was very formative. You deal with it by yourself at a young age, and it makes you self-reliant and resourceful,” he recalled. The topic of AIDS and the loss of that period are dealt with in Hiuni’s play.

Indeed, Hiuni’s self-reliance and resourcefulness were tested when he moved to New York City after receiving his master of fine arts from Penn State. He thought he would be “the toast of the town and an art star in six months,” but he ended up unemployed and struggling with the competitive nature of the art world. He recalls that former director of SoVA, James Stephenson, told him, “You are more than an artist — you’re an intellectual,” which led Hiuni to accept Stephenson’s open invitation to come back and work on a doctorate in art education, which Hiuni credits for his successful return to the New York art scene. His work has appeared in The New York Times, and his solo performance, "Twentieth Century Art," is part of the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

"Murmurs & Incantations" (with a haunting score by internationally renowned composer Yuval Ron) debuted in 2013 at Mixed Greens, a former gallery in Chelsea run by Heather Darcy Bhandari, who graduated from Penn State in 1999 with a master of fine arts in visual arts. The play now has another Penn State connection — Lewis Magruder, a friend of Hiuni’s from his time at Penn State, who earned his master of fine arts in theatre from Penn State in 1996, will be directing it at FringeNYC.

“I sent him an earlier version of 'Murmurs & Incantations,' and he had some brilliant ideas for how to improve it, so I thought, ‘Lewis really helped me with this play and deserves to direct it,’” explained Hiuni.

“It’s gratifying that Dahn would entrust me with his work. It is wonderful and humbling,” said Magruder, who is traveling to New York from Ohio, where he teaches theatre at Miami University, to direct Hiuni’s play. “I think the most important thing for me about the play is that the main character’s artistry and his emotional life awaken over the course of the journey, and that kind of transformation is at the heart of why I do theatre and what I think really great plays do.”

"Murmurs & Incantations" will run Aug. 20­ to 28 at the SoHo Playhouse, arguably the most prestigious venue of the New York International Fringe Festival and the site of the early work of Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard.

“To tread on those boards with that history,” mused Hiuni. “If nothing else happens, at least there was this.”

For more information about "Murmurs & Incantations," visit http://www.murmursplay.com.

For ticket information and to view the complete schedule of festival events, visit FringeNYC’s website at http://fringenyc.org/

  • Dahn Hiuni portrait

    Dahn Hiuni is a playwright, artist, activist and writer.

    IMAGE: Dahn Hiuni
  • Dahn Hiuni's performance piece for World AIDS Day

    Dahn Hiuni performs for World AIDS Day in 1994 on the Palmer Museum of Art Plaza.

    IMAGE: Dahn Hiuni
  • Lewis Magruder portrait

    Lewis Magruder, a friend of Hiuni’s from his time at Penn State, who earned his master of fine arts in theatre in 1996, will be directing 'Murmurs & Incantations' at FringeNYC.

    IMAGE: Lewis Magruder
  • One of the sets from "Murmurs & Incantations" at South Gallery

    One of the sets from 'Murmurs & Incantations' at South Gallery.

    IMAGE: Dahn Hiuni
  • A scene from Murmurs & Incantations at Mixed Greens

    Actors perform a scene from 'Murmurs & Incantations' at Mixed Greens.

    IMAGE: Dahn Hiuni
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Last Updated July 18, 2016