-Reginald Shepherd, "Notes Toward Beauty"
As someone who tries to see a lot of anything that piques my interest and especially as someone who tries to see almost anything Available Light Theater produces, this season has been a remarkable bounty. After a 2012-2013 that felt tentative and unsure, 2013-2014 has been a roaring success of dancing with swords and dangling off edges so far. As we lean into the home stretch, signified by their announcement of next season on May 14th and with both Ian Short's production of Mike Bartlett's Cock opening tonight and Matt Slaybaugh's adaptation of the novel Leaving Atocha Station next month, I wanted to take a second and talk about the one-two punch of their last two shows which blew me away and which I didn't get the chance to write about in this space.
The most recent two plays of the season both come with Humana Festival pedigrees and are breathing, vibrant takes on the American neurosis. The black experience, the pain and joy of self-invention, the deeper pain of invention being denied, and the double edged sword of this fucked up thing we all call "truth" all boil up in How We Got On by Idris Goodwin (staged February 6-22) and We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (staged March 27-April 12).
I've talked a lot in this space - and in discussions with A. and others - about Available Light's "sweet spot" often being works where the real subject is the difficulty of making art and the ability of that making to change our lives. With Idris Goodwin's How We Got On they found one of the most perfect examples of how richly satisfying that kind of play can be and executed it perfectly. It's an evening of theater I could only call "motherfucking magical". All else is details and noise, but I'm going to go there anyway.
Goodwin's play is a cut-up of refracted memory focusing on three teenagers in the suburb of a large Midwestern metropolis, The City. The City is big enough for ghettos and to support a major league basketball team (subtly deployed as the relief of class fissures among the unnamed town's black community).
The time is the late '80s when middle class black and white flight from the city is at an apex and hip-hop began to infuse every aspect of pop culture.
The pov character is Hank, played by David Glover (previously very good in Short North Stage's Passing Strange), a self-serious sponge prone to fits of excitement. He knows he could be great and he knows there's something worth knowing inside himself but he doesn't quite have the confidence or the experience to get other people on board yet. When he meets Julian, played by Rudy Frias, a new implant from The City who turns out to be Hank's former basketball camp rival with a hard-edged swagger and irresistible charm but with rhymes he bites from people like Big Daddy Kane, righteous indignation rapidly cools into a mutual arrangement with Hank as hypeman and writer and Julian as the face and voice. For kids of a high school age, it seems de rigeur that this will be complicated by a member of the opposite sex but refreshingly Luann's, played by Kayla Jackmon, presence isn't as an object to be fought over - she's got her own agenda and is as big a rap fan as either of the fellas, the triangle has more to do with artistic ferment and ambition.
The heartbreak in How We Got On is a reaffirmation of how much impact our parents' expectations (or lack thereof) and attention (or lack thereof) has on all of us. Julian's father's drinking problem and bravado are a calculated picture of a man who can't quite escape the past and is crumbling in the light of this-will-never-get-better, Hank's father is a strict disciplinarian but with a core of love of and respect (and a little extra money to help bankroll a drum machine), and Luann's father is a basketball player moved from the city to give his children a better life who is the least well-drawn of any of them but seems to pay her no mind at all. Tied into this heartbreak is that sensation that some people overcome the horrible hand they've been dealt and some people just don't. Whatever peer group they have isn't always enough inspiration.
It's important you buy these characters as kids and you buy how exciting the world is through their eyes. As songs get created, the songs are so good you believe the quick high school fame but they still feel just amateurish enough that you don't have a hard time believing they wouldn't break out of their town. You understand it as a first step and the audience really roots for them to continue. The hunger to be heard, to be seen, to be understood, is palpable and catchy enough that I still have two of the songs from the show in my head months later. This is, of course, helped immeasurably by rock hard and razor sharp sound design by Dave Wallingford. Watching Julian's face as he eases into a breathtaking bit of rhyme or a basketball shot is so full of the joy of feeling creation course through you that it's doubly troubling how easily discouraged he gets and that's the crux of How We Got On. In a different light, "getting on" is about the diminishing of expectations but it never quite goes there.
The acting's phenomenal, all around. Jackmon is a wonder of motion and confidence and teasing charm. Glover's intensity and deep confidence leavened by a earnestness and goofiness was the most relatable character for me (given my teenage years) but is also riveting, impossible to take your eyes off whenever he's on stage. Rudy Frias might have the most difficult, textured part and he hits every note in a way that makes it look easy.
Last but definitely not least, attention should be paid to the triumvirate of Michelle Whited on costumes, Brad Steinmetz on Scenic Design, and Drew Eberly's direction. Whited's costuming choices are very subtle, they feel like what I remember from a similar town in the same era (if I gauge the era right, I'm 4-5 years younger than the characters) but don't throw it in your face, "THIS IS 1988! 1988, Y'ALL!" and don't try too hard. Steinmetz's basketball court with a DJ booth at one side set also grounds us visually in the early days of hip-hop, parties in the park, and emphasizes the importance of basketball as a cultural force in the era while also underscoring the feeling that in every situation someone is winning and someone is losing - the density of information delivered with minimal dressing is breathtaking. Eberly's staging of the audience on both sides of the stage keeps the basketball metaphor in motion and also forces the actors to reorient themselves almost as frequently as The Selector spins the moment into another, subliminally reinforcing the turntable quality of the narrative, and the comic timing he gets out of this play is perfect. Each beat is finely calibrated and cut as though by a razor.
Drury's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is a rougher, much grimmer piece, a cracked mirror image of How We Got On. It also starts being about amateur art, a group who have done some rudimentary research about the horrific genocide in Namibia and want to put on something about it - a play, a pageant, something. And as we follow the cast's arguments about what shape that should take - from the problematic starting point that the only "known record" is the letters of the white colonizers - we watch the bandage get ripped off until the last third is a horrifying pit of bubbling, oozing neurosis turning into psychosis. This is going to be more elliptical because I don't want to give any of the plot away in case someone else is doing this play.
The six cast members include: two white men, Jordan Fehr (labeled as "Actor 1" also "White Man") and Matt Hermes ("Actor 3" also "Another White Man"); two black men, David Glover ("Actor 4" also "Another Black Man") and Ben Jones ("Actor 2" also "Black Man"); a white woman, Acacia Leigh Duncan ("Actor 5" also "Sarah"); and a black woman, Shanelle Marie ("Black Woman" also "Another Sarah"). The lack of information about who these people are (as evidenced by the character names in the script) and what brought them together both in the first place and what possessed them to work on this as a piece of subject matter is something I kept returning to. Is it a class? Is that why no one leaves? Is it part in a long string of previously successful pieces and this one's just going off the rails? I feel like part of the key is the title's reference to this as a "presentation" coupled with the fact that no one seems to have done any real research except for finding the letters from the colonists point of view and a timeline they've cobbled together but by the end of the piece I kind of enjoyed not knowing.
The way everyone argued to be heard, from relatively self-evident criticisms the audience would also have, like Ben Jones' character's "How long are we going to have to watch white people fall in love?" to wilder flights like David Glover's character's acting-to-get-laid monologue about a king and his wives every sentence felt like it was working on multiple levels. There are racial tensions playing out across these 6 people in ways both archetypal and very subtle. There are gender tensions less prevalent but still palpable (or maybe they're as strong there and I didn't pick up on them enough because as a man I'm socialized to be less attuned to them). There's the danger of trying to get along, trying to massage the group too much. There's the danger of caring too much, taking things too personally, and the corollary danger of not taking things personally enough. There's the danger of not knowing your voice and not knowing what you want to say with a piece before you bring other people and ideas into it. The danger of losing yourself.
It's key and it's telling that once the show within the show has gone off the rails the two white actors lean back on the accents and the racist humor of the American South when neither of them has been shown to be southern previous to this and the time and tenor of the "jokes" is removed from the specifics of the setting of the play they're trying to make. Also telling and, I think, key is that when reality comes crashing back down at the end of the piece, the white people comfort each other. Not the black actors who were just steamrolled in the horror of their subconscious minds. That line where satire curdles into just reveling in the horrible thing you're "joking" about is more brilliantly elucidated in this than any other piece of theater I've ever seen and I left barely able to talk or make eye contact with anyone.
The acting's all superlative. Shanelle Marie as the leader of the group, maybe de facto, maybe just because she wanted it the most, has maybe the hardest, least showy role of the lot but everything that happens is filtered through her and she shoulders the biggest weight of keeping the story moving. Jordan Fehr (also doing double duty as Fight Captain) and David Glover both continue an insane streak of fantastic work, keeping their characters grounded in an emotional reality. Acacia Duncan, as always, is a rock. Matt Hermes (last seen in 33 Variations as Beethoven, though he also directed Good People and God of Carnage for NPT last year) as the putative villain of the piece gives a nuanced and dynamic performance. And Ben Jones blew my hair back, for me the discovery of this show. He has to go through a dizzying array of moods and intentions and every time he reaches he swings hard and swings far and sticks the landing.
Jarod Wilson's lighting and Dave Wallingford's sound are so subtle they could easily be missed but in something so minimal they're crucial to making sure the audience is paying attention where they should be. And Slaybaugh's direction is just about perfect, it's hard to picture this funny, horrifying material being handled with a defter hand. Not an evening I can say in good conscience I enjoyed, but the most memorable evening of art so far (and in these five months it's had some stiff competition).
To Cock. Coming soon. I won't be this long without writing, I promise.