"I've had to learn a new voice for myself," Brianna Barrett says at the start of her new podcast, True Love and Other Noncommunicable Diseases. "But my podcast voice is like—I can't do it now."
It's an entertainingly self-effacing beginning, but it's misleading. Not only does Barrett have an effortless podcast voice—smooth, calm, controlled—but True Love is a great podcast and a moving meditation on her journey as a filmmaker and cancer survivor.
Some podcasts created during the pandemic have a "What the hell else am I going to do with my time?" vibe. That's not the case with True Love or Phil Johnson's Protocol, both of which have been released by Portland-area theater companies and are at once topical and universal. They may seem light years apart (True Love is memoir and Protocol is science fiction), but each offers revelatory reflections on life in isolation that resonate beyond COVID-19.
Johnson is a seasoned podcaster—he and Clifton Holznagel interview Portland theater personalities on their podcast Radical Listening—but Protocol is unique because it fuses audio storytelling with Afrofuturism, and the first episode was written entirely by writers of color. The podcast follows the crew of the spaceship Elegua IV, voyagers who are transporting a group of humans and embryos as they search for a new habitable solar system.
Protocol, presented by Portland Center Stage, is filled with references to iconic sci-fi films. The cast includes Tyharra Cozier as DALS, an artificial intelligence that seems only slightly more trustworthy than HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the claustrophobia-inducing terror of the first episode evokes the Alien series.
The deeper Protocol gazes into the void, the more it looks toward Earth.
"My heart rate has increased, I can barely breathe without coughing," says scientist Jonic Ibarra (Victor Mack). "It's against protocol to self-diagnose, but the ship medic can't be trusted. None of them can be trusted."
The same brand of paranoia and fear that infected humanity during the pandemic rules Elegua IV, a vessel that can seem to offer both protection and imprisonment.
While Protocol spotlights an ensemble, True Love beckons us into the soul of its star. The podcast, released by Hillsboro's Bag & Baggage, is based on Barrett's one-woman show of the same name, but it isn't a rehash. She includes newly recorded thoughts about her battle with cancer and clips of other performances of the show, turning the podcast into a conversation between multiple Barretts.
Barrett 2021 sounds haunted by her pre-pandemic life. "I was never good at living in the moment—and never brave enough to ask or answer deep, intimate questions unless I had my camera on and I was being recorded," she tells us, sounding unlike the person who once regaled a live audience with a cheeky anecdote about filming students making out when she was in high school. "Some people just learn by having a really creepy hobby," she jokes.
Just like Protocol is about more than outer space, True Love concerns more than just Barrett's life. The laughter of past audiences seems to echo through the podcast, making you excruciatingly hungry for communal entertainment and aware of what's been absent during the past year. Listening to Barrett, you think, "She gets it. She gets what the world has been through." That's partly because she was a survivor before the pandemic, but also because she's an immensely perceptive and compassionate artist.
Unfinished business looms over the first episodes of Protocol and True Love. Johnson leaves us wondering what will happen to the crew of Elegua IV, and Barrett tantalizes us by glancing toward the uncertain future that lies beyond the pandemic.
"It's hard not to find yourself asking, 'What do I want on the other end?'" she says. It can be a challenging question to contemplate, but by guiding us toward understanding, Johnson and Barrett are helping us answer it.
SEE IT: Episodes of Protocol stream at pcs.org/protocol. Episodes of True Love and Other Noncommunicable Diseases stream at bagnbaggage.org/category/kbnb. Free.