Terminer examines what a 'witch hunt' means in the digital age | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Terminer examines what a 'witch hunt' means in the digital age

click to enlarge Philip Wesley Gates - PHOTO: RENEE ROSENSTEEL
Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Philip Wesley Gates
"Somewhere in the dark, a cyborg coven is performing a ritual for the future of humankind."

That's the cryptic introduction for Philip Wesley Gates’ new play Terminer, which summons "the New England witch panic out of America’s colonial shadows and into the blue light of the digital age.”

Gates, a director, performance maker, writer, and scholar, described the show as “witchy experimental theater.”


The idea came to them years ago while reading separate books about Salem, Mass., and artificial intelligence. But with recent political discourse taking on the term “witch hunt,” Gates decided to revisit Terminer with a new perspective.

“[I was thinking about] how frequently the term ‘witch hunts’ has suddenly seemed to pop up, mostly courtesy of people like Donald Trump or men who are being called to account for habits of sexual harassment or abuse,” Gates said. “Thinking about how this term ‘witch hunt’ gets thrown around by people who are in power and who are being held accountable, and how that is a total inversion of the power dynamics of traditional witch hunts. If we’re going to start throwing Salem and witch hunts around as a reference point, let’s actually talk about what actually went down.”

With an all-queer ensemble and running Feb. 6 and 7, Terminer calls into question contemporary systems of power and puts an emphasis on queer bodies that Gates said are often written out of the narrative.

“I’m really interested in creating spaces of community for queer folks and queer artists to be in a room together and create something together, and share that time and space and energy,” they said. “I think the question of ensuring that we have a future is especially loaded for queer people, and it’s really important for us to dream those futures together.”


Terminer also deals with elements of uncertainty — what Gates called “a very American obsession with causes and explanations and binaries.” They hope that at the show, the audience will get the chance to embrace this uncertainty and “sit in the dark with the unknown.”

“Another thing that feels important about this piece is dealing with our relationship to the unknown. I think that’s one thing that keeps us so fascinated with Salem because we keep trying to find the cause,” said Gates. “As a non-binary person, I’m interested in living in the gray areas, living with complexity and being okay with the unknown.”

Terminer will blend together multiple different elements, infusing history with technology and magic, and Gates hopes the audience will walk away from the show with questions for the bar afterward.

“I’m sure a question people are going to have is ‘What does this have to do with Salem?’” they said. “But that’s a conversation that I’m interested in sparking.”

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