Dallas — Greetings from Sunny South Dallas! That is the welcoming graphic for Soul Rep Theatre’s Southside Stories, a festival of 10-minute plays about events, people and places in ZIP code 75215. The plays are onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
The premise for the festival is intriguing. The first step was in deciding on an oft-misunderstood and maligned geographical region of Dallas. ZIP code is important in clarifying the historical nucleus of the area politicians sometimes refer to as “the southern sector.” For more recent area residents, zip code 75215 is Southern Dallas, but for those whose familial roots extend back generations the area has been, is and will always be, South Dallas. The Southside.
The next step was to employ a thematic thread, one that not only connects all the plays but also reflects the struggle for the community—Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. Boal was interested in contemporary social and political issues and used forum theatre for those expressions. He believed that each participant was an actor and an observer or audience member, a “spect-actor.”
Inspired by his pedagogy, two different audience participation theatre games have been inserted into the evening’s programming. This audience engagement exercise while entertaining was also one of the contributing factors to the extended program run-time from its announced one-and-a-half hours to three. Presenting 10 plays in one evening has its challenges.
Not to be minimized in importance is the festival’s focus on the year 1984, which functions like a musical drone, part of the underpinning of the program. There is the culture of 1984 in America and in Dallas, Texas, specifically, which cannot avoid a comparison with the class struggles addressed in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Playwrights were each assigned a topic and given two weeks to write a play. Writing for the festival are: diannetucker, Soul Rep founder and producer Anyika McMillan-Herod, Chris Herod, recent BTWHSPVA alum La’Needra LuLu Cornelius, IV Amenti, Emir Price (current BTWHSPVA student) and Keith Price. Directing the various pieces are Jordan Story, Dee Smith, Jiles King, Natalie King, Rene Miche’al and IV Amenti.
Forming the company of actors (in order of program lineup): Morgana Wilborn, Maggie Ward, Domenique Smith, Michael Bowman, Kyndra Mack, Trenton Williams, Destiny Rey, Takenya Banks, Jori Jackson, Aaliyah White, Jerrold Trice, Esau Price, Nate Thurman, Alexandria Warfield, Nicole Romero, Cain Rodriguez, J.R. Bradford, and Ke’Vondrea McKinney.
Among the stories are those of the region’s Jewish heritage, the tension experienced by architect William Sidney Pittman, homelessness and South Dallas’ tent city, the story of Dallas’ popular pre-hip-hop group, the DART rail murder of a 19-year old by several tweens, and the Wah-Wah Chinese eatery.
The festival’s premise works. As would be expected some of the plays are more successful than others, but each lands reasonably well.
Most successful is The House Special, written by Keith Price and directed by Dee Smith. This piece seems fully fleshed out. It effectively reflects the complicated relationships at the core of South Dallas’ perseverance. The exchanges between Wah-Wah (Morgana Wilborn) and Woman (Jori Jackson) are very funny.
Communion, written and directed by Anyika McMillan-Herod, goes a few hours into the life of Ruby (Maggie Ward), a homeless woman. Whatever unevenness exists in the script is offset by Ward’s performance. She boldly flashes through the complexities of her character’s emotions, calling attention to the nagging question of whether anyone really chooses to remain homeless.
Writer Chris Herod goes into the shadowy world of religion and racketeering with Father Brown’s Vitality Tonic. This piece avoids the pitfall of preachiness through lightly infused humor nicely executed by Takenya Banks. It is one of the stronger plays in the festival.
LuLu Cornelius’ Black Boy Groove, directed by Jiles King, is an ensemble piece that explains what happened to one of Dallas’ most promising music groups of the 1980s. This is one of the pieces in the festival that could be expanded and still maintain its pointedness. Given the recent success of NWA’s story in the film Straight Outta Compton, now is a pretty good time to tell these stories of groundbreaking hip-hop groups.
Juan Y Maria by IV Amenti is a simple yet not-so-simple love story set in 1984. It is about aspirations and love and the courage to pursue both in a new world. This South Dallas story stands as evidence of the needlessness of fear of immigration and language.
Pace and timing issues aside, the festival is enjoyable. The concept is an excellent idea, presenting dramatizations of South Dallas history that is too infrequently highlighted. The Southside Stories are about collaboration, survival, resilience, family, and love.