Dallas — It’s great to see Soul Rep Theatre Company back on the scene with their first season since the company closed during their seventh season in 2003. Their eighth New Play Festival, playing this weekend at the Margo Jones Theater, is a reminder of how much they have been missed.
Of the four short plays on the program, one is absolutely stunning, two are satisfyingly successful and the other needs improvement. But that’s the beauty of such a collection of original work, it’s like the Texas weather; if you don’t like one play, wait a few minutes and it will change.
It begins with the weak link, When Going Green Goes ($#@!), by Guinea and Keith Price and directed by Keith Price. Guinea, a Soul Rep founder, is artistic director. What appears to have started out as an amusing commentary on the confusion over what materials can be recycled turns into a boss-from-hell story as Boss Lady (Patricia Hill) repeatedly shows favoritism to inept Sorter No. 1 (Douglas Carter), and not the better employee Sorter No. 2 (Yolanda Davis). There are some funny moments, such as the discussion of how certain items could be recycled into something else, such as condoms to balloons or Styrofoam balls into earrings.
Davis gives the standout performance, but it’s otherwise broadly acted, even for a work of broad comedy, and comes off as writing experiment that doesn’t go anywhere. No worries, that’s what these festivals are for.
That’s followed by the beautiful The Ballad of Jane Elkins by another Soul Rep founder, Anyika McMillan-Herod, directed by veteran actor and director Vickie Washington.
The work is based on the true, local story of slave girl Jane, who was hanged for murdering her owner Mr. Wisdom (David Benn) in Farmer’s Branch. McMillan-Herod learned of her story in the company’s ongoing research of Dallas black history. One of the group’s signature original works, The Freedmans (1998), based on the stories of the freed slaves buried in unmarked graves at what is now the intersection of Interstate 75 and Lemmon Avenue, was revived in 2013 to announce the comeback of Soul Rep.
In this play, Jane (Mia Antoinette) is purchased by Mr. Wisdom (David Benn) and becomes a surrogate mother to slave children Sam (Esau Price) and Lis-Beth (Taylor Waller) who lost their mother and are raised by Wisdom, a man who seems loving and trustworthy. At the very beginning, we see the noose, Jane slowly step up and place it around her neck, and her death. As her body swings after the floor drops, she walks out on the stage to look back on her life and this story, hauntingly dragging the noose everywhere she goes.
Monique Ridge-Williams plays Ancestor, a voodoo woman who comments through her chants and gourd-shaking. An especially memorable moment comes with the chilling, approving look on her face as Jane decides to do the deed they both know must happen.
Fine performances all around, but recent Southern Methodist University graduate Antoinette, with intense eyes that have just a hint of vulnerability, makes an impression as a woman who looks forward to a day with “no more misery.” It’s too bad for us that Antoinette is taking off for New York in a few weeks; best of luck to her.
In New York-based Yusef Miller’s Breakfast, directed by McMillan-Herod, spouses Harriet (Guinea Bennett-Price) and Glen (Jamal Sterling) start off the day with an argument about Pop-Tarts. He’s an eggs-and-bacon man and argues that they’re not breakfast food. But they have jelly in them, she counters.
If it seems like a pointless quarrel, you’ve never been in a relationship where something more deep-seeded brings out utter foolishness. Insignificances blow up into ridiculous battles.
Turns out, Harriet and Glen are reeling from a tragedy involving their 19-year-old son and both are racked with guilt about what he could have been—and what they could have done differently. It explores the notion of nurture/nature and being the product of one’s environment, with vivid dialogue and affecting performances from both actors. These characters may never know “why,” and neither will we. That’s good theater right there.
The showcase ends with Jonathan Norton’s Wonderful World, directed by Lisa B. Whitfield. Norton has explored his absurd side before in short plays presented at TeCo Theatrical Productions. This one he deems a “ghetto fabulous absurdity.”
Maybe not as absurd as we’ve come to expect from that word when it pertains to the theater, but it definitely has fabulous moments. Sisters Freddie (Michele René) and Bobbie (Monique Ridge Williams) are on their way back from their other sister’s wedding in Grapevine. In the back seat of a rented Lexus is their friend Sprinkle (LaHunter). They take an out-of-the-way road and end up in a rural area where an alien spacecraft lands.
Thus begins the often hilarious squabble over which sister should volunteer to be abducted, with Sprinkle having none of it, even if she’s pretty sure aliens don’t abduct black people. It goes on about five minutes too long, as the fighting stays on a fruitless, circular path. Of course, many arguments do. All three actresses do it justice with wildly funny performances.
In the end, the value of family conquers all.
On Thursday night, Soul Rep’s festival began with performances by spoken word artist Camika Spencer, exciting the audience with two terrific poems. There will be some kind of warm-up act at every performance through the weekend.
Soul Rep’s season will continue with an original musical, A Hostile Holiday, Dec. 11-21 at the South Dallas Cultural Center; and The Shine Plays, three one-acts by Black Arts Movement writer and editor, and Dallas native, Ted Shine, April 9-19 at the Margo Jones Theater.
Hello, Soul Rep, it’s nice to have you back where you belong.