Seattle comedian shares seeds of tomato wisdom

On Thursday night in Paresky Auditorium, actress Jessica Cerullo, a Seattle-based performer, writer and teacher, presented “The Artist as Citizen: An Improvised Address on Performance, Purpose and the Vulnerability of the Tomato.”

Speaking about her inspiration for original material, she reflected on her interactive one-woman show Miracle Tomato in which she interviews a range of individuals whose livelihoods are involved with this complicated fruit/vegetable. The play takes the audience on a journey that examines the effects tomatoes have on our lives, great and small, from farmers who harvest thousands of tomatoes a year to home gardeners who grow just enough for their family’s enjoyment.

Though there was a low turnout of students, this did not deter Cerullo from putting on an enthusiastic production. Instead, she made her performance into a much more intimate atmosphere, sharing with us the personal and financial struggles of being an actress in a hostile, competitive environment. “It’s really easy to hate yourself when you’re living in New York. It’s really easy to disappear,” she said, making her insecurities readily apparent.

Raised in an Italian-American household, Cerullo described food (often tomato-based) as the nucleus of family life. “I would keep being met with this ubiquitous, serendipitous tomato,” she said, until finally she decided to make a play dedicated to it. Through the ripe lens of the tomato, Cerullo peers into America. The show was not just a performance but also a way to become close to a community while also being a sustainable (“and broke,” she joked) artist.

“I like art that instigates,” she said. Indeed it is not hard to imagine that her performances echo throughout each community that she touches. Cerullo has, as part of her presentation, discussed handing out free tomatoes to people at farmer’s markets in exchange for describing that intimate moment of eating a tomato and verbalizing its taste: flowery, fruity, fresh and pungent. In this way, Miracle Tomato is about a mutual exchange of ideas and is continuously evolving, existing as an ever-changing discourse about vulnerability, appropriation, identity, mass consumption, cultivation and the changing dynamic of food and family.

“I am interested in theater as an art form that is vulnerable, non-repeatable and dependent on an audience,” Cerullo said. “A few years ago, I began to see the tomato as something more than food. I followed this fruit/vegetable until little by little, it revealed to me its history, its nature and surprisingly, its theatricality.”

Cerullo abruptly switched her mannerisms to that of the play’s title character, Angelina, who captures Cerullo’s rich Italian upbringing with a heavy accent and a stubborn rootedness to family and home, not unlike that of the tomato. Dynamically changing from Jessica to Angelina, she allows the viewer insights into her acting processes: “A good performance is not enough,” she said. “You have to be able to communicate the importance of the arts. This is the role of the artist as citizen. As a performer, one develops understanding of other human beings and in turn, develops one’s own compassion.”

Miracle Tomato premiered at P.S. 122 in New York City as part of the soloNOVA Festival and continues to tour in the United States. As Miracle Tomato tours the country, a unique version of the show is created in each town. All proceeds go to benefit sustainable community projects, such as planting local gardens in vacant lots. “Behind Miracle Tomato is my desire to transform my own joys, fears and confusions about the political, agricultural and familial experiences of my life into a one-hour piece of art,” Cerullo said. “In its most pure form I like to think of it just as I received it – as a gift. Like the stories I was told, like the seeds that were planted, like the plate of food that made its way from one end of the table to the other.”

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