Dallas — If you feel that there’s not enough stylistic diversity in the local theater and performance scene—and granted, that’s a legit concern—then you’re not paying attention to what’s happening at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Through its affiliation with the National Performance Network (NPN) and various grants focused on original work by contemporary artists, SDCC director Vicki Meek is programming some of the most adventurous work on local stages. In May there was Fat Boy, a dance-theater work from Teo Castellanos’ D-Projects that I still can’t get out of my head; and now comes Linda Parris Bailey’s play Speed Killed My Cousin, an import from Carpetbag Theatre of Knoxville, Tenn.
The play, which opened a three-night run on Thursday, examines the immediate as well as long-lasting ramifications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and features a knock-the-wind-out-of-you performance by local actress Ashley Wilkerson, who has already given one of the year’s best performances in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at Jubilee Theatre.
Before the performance on Thursday, director Andrea Assaf noted that the play is tough to watch because of its strong language and thematic elements—we’re talking about war, after all—and that if anyone needed to get up and take a breather in the 80-minute intermissionless work, then go ahead. No one did that, but even if they wanted to, they were probably rendered unable to move because of the riveting show.
What’s remarkable about Wilkerson’s performance as Debra is that she does 99 percent of it (until the very end) in the driver’s seat of a cleverly designed Hummer, driving along the Long Island Expressway—the L.I.E., that acronym serving as a metaphor for the untruths that have propelled many a country into war—at night. Terrific video design by Melody Reeves adds to the effect.
She mostly talks to the audience, although with a hands-free earpiece and her phone, it could be someone at the other end. She tells her story of being on multiple tours of duty in the recent Iraq war, while also interacting with her father David (Bert Tanner), a Vietnam vet who was drafted as a young man, and has never been the same.
Many of the other characters are ghosts, including the titular character, Lynell (Carlton “Starr” Releford), who was also in Vietnam with his cousin David; and various roles played by playwright Bailey, most hauntingly as an apparition/angel dressed in a white hijab. She also plays a cop, David’s mom, Debra’s mom and another Iraqi woman who is fascinated by the fact that the American military allows women.
Tanner is affecting as a man who some might view as out of sorts, but signs of sharp mental acuity are obscured by his anger over the Vietnam experience—and politics in general. Much of the storytelling focus is on Wilkerson, though, as Debra weaves threads about discovering her sexuality, falling in love with a female soldier who was later killed, and memories of driving with convoys through the Iraqi desert (the video is effective here, too). Those, which chronicle suicide bombers and inescapable violence, are particularly vivid. Wilkerson captures a range of emotion, letting hints of vulnerability peek out from that thick veil of resentment and regret—and all while keeping her eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. It’s a stunning performance.
A particularly searing passage comes when she talks about the memories of 9/11 and questioning the subsequent bombing of homes and killing of civilians in an invaded country. And it doesn’t end with troops deploying; veterans like her will have to live with physical and mental pain as a result. “You act like war is the only thing that brings out the worst in people,” Debra says, delving into other plagues of the human condition—in wartime and not—such as betrayal.
Like the lyrics to a Curtis Mayfield song effectively used in this production goes: “if there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.”
Speed Killed My Cousin is powerful work. There are two more chances to catch it, Friday and Saturday night. Also, plan ahead for another touring show in the NPN network coming to SDCC in the spring, The Burnin’ from Progress Theatre. Also on the season is a new work from Jonathan Norton, Mississippi Goddam, set in Civil Rights Era Mississippi.
» Read our interview with playwright Linda Parris Bailey