A well produced play, or plays, does not need to connote that they are pleasant to watch. if enjoyment or amusement were the main criteria for attending a show, I would probably stay home. Tragedies, or conflict-driven plays may be a bit tortuous to attend, but if the characters illustrate a flaw to avoid or way to resolve the dilemma, the victory of the play may be in what we take home with us. Of course, we might have other motivations for heading into town to see a couple of shows, such as knowing friends who are involved in the productions.
Such as been a recent weekend, starting Friday evening at Theatre Alliance in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. to see Blood at the Root, followed up Saturday afternoon just across the Potomac River at Signature Theatre’s production of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The pre-show pleasure was sharing meals with a college student at Howard University who had a role Friday evening, then catching up with a former student who now coordinates the educational programs for Signature Theatre. Great food (shrimp and chicken chorizo paste at Busboy’s and Poets, and smoked salmon salad at The Carlyle). Wonderful company (including our sister who had been their theatre mentor in years past).
Blood at the Root tells the story of a high school in the south and the students’ response to incidents on all sides. Scenes, poetry, lighting effects, and dance weave the students and events together, all asking the question of how are these events perceived by different characters, and how do they respond.
The obvious conflicts are the black-white race issues of our heritage. But, these obvious offenses become more complicated because some students are not as easily identified with either group, and some chose to not identify with their group of origin. A chilling dance routine opens the show. A series of students come out in groups of four, one placed center-stage, as the other three dance around with threatening gestures. Everyone is vilified by someone else.
In the 90 minute (no intermission) show, these groups act out their alliances and antagonisms, becoming more intertwined and complicated at the show progresses. Raylynn (Billie Krishawn) wants to become the first African-American girl to run for student body office, while her friend Asha (Molly Shayna Cohen) wants to affiliate with the black students more than her white family. De-Andre (Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour), Raylynn’s brother, is a receiver on the football team, with Colin (Paul Roeckell), a white transfer-student, in the quarterback position. Raylynn is helping Colin catch up classes and Colin is helping De-Andre get noticed for college scholarships. Both want to escape family histories. Toria (Stephanie Wilson) wants to write outstanding articles for the school newspaper to make her statement about what she sees as important issues at school (teen pregnancies, access to birth control, safe sex, race relations and prejudices). She battles with Justine (Deimoni Brewington), the editor, who wants to put out a clean, nice looking school newspaper devoid of controversy and attention. He also wants Toria to learn how to report on what happens rather than editorialize her opinions on the events.
There is a reason that I am glad that my teen years were 40 years ago and not likely to be repeated!
Raylynn challenges of defacto segregation on campus by going with several other black students to sit under the old-oak tree, which is the territory of the white students. This results in three nooses being hung from the tree. This leads to protests and threats from the principal. Raylynn’s and Asha’s friendship is strained when Asha hesitates to join the black students’ demonstration. De-Andre’s and Colin’s team-work ends when rumors, possibly misrepresented from comments Raylynn makes about Colins, turns into a group of black students beating up Colins. The black students are arrested, while those who instigated the sequence of events with the nooses are minimized as “pranksters”. Toria’s and Justin’s newsroom power struggles comes to a head when she accuses him of suppressing the her reports about the black-white student conflicts on campus because he is black. He reveals that he is not accepted by any group because the white students see him as black and the black student see him as a sell-out. His list of phrases used for this concept is shameful. The shame that he feels. He has been trying to get through high school invisibly, living “in the cracks” between these groups.
I would like to say that the play had a resolution, but the closing scenes left us wondering how these conflicts would end at some future time.
But, the hope was in the lobby. We met our friend, who played Justin, with hugs of congratulations, while several of the other performers similarly greeted their friends and family in a raucous and noisy hall of jubilation. Black and white audience members and performers mixed without reservation, in a traditionally black neighborhood in D.C. An older white woman (Holly Hassett) approached us to introduce herself and inquire as to who we were. She had seen us having dinner with the cast member before the show. She is a benefactor of a number of theatre productions in the D.C. area including this one. She appreciated that we were supporting a new actor, as she was in her way, to develop his craft.
Saturday’s play, Masterpieces, was also a 90 minute (no intermission) run of emotion. It begins with Layla (Holly Twyford) greeting us, the audience, as a convention of art historians and restorers at a conference in an art museum. She outlines the destruction of the museum as a victim of a 100-year war. She asks the question of what is the value of art, when civilians and soldiers are focused on survival. Conversely, she ponders what is the value of survival if nothing exists as pinnacles of culture. Explosions and fights breakout. Three women are left on stage, Layla, Mitra (Felicia Curry) a soldier guarding her, and Nadia (Yesenia Iglesias) who is supposed to nurse her wounds.
These three women continue to struggle with questions of survival and art, as do we in the audience (though our role is unclear, as the supposed art history conference disappears from the plot). The theme of survival comes down to none will survive alone, but two may survive against one, or many.
What I found interesting about this play was that men were alluded to in the dialogue between the women. But, the men are either dead (fathers and brothers), discarded (Layla’s divorce from her husband), or distant (the commanding soldiers whom Mitra fears will kill her if she does not fulfill her guard duties). We never see them, but we feel their presence. War so often feels like a machine that destroys through its 24-hour, inhumane motion, once built and set into operation.
We see how Nadia designs and carries out her escape, but we only see Layla and Nadia plan their escape. Together, combining their skills, they set out the restore a masterpiece painting. We do not know, for sure, that their plan works. But, we are left with hope. Hope that two woman (hopefully generalized to men who get the point) can work together, not against each other, with something of value beyond survival to escape life of only survival at the cost of another.
Hope. Masterpieces. What are these. Again, a meal before the show. We catch up with a former theatre student, meet his wife, and just-shy of one-year old daughter. What more hope can there be that someone would bear a child, and rear it into a masterpiece.
What is the common thread with this weekend? Take the younger generation out for a meal! Get past our cynicism and despair about the horrors of our adult world. Strive together to find beauty beyond survival.