Dallas — Soul Rep Theatre’s Shine Play Festival is named so in memory of Dr. Ted Shine, legendary playwright with more than 100 titles to his credit. A longtime resident of Dallas, Dr. Shine died in June of 2018. His first play, Morning, Noon and Night, was originally produced at Howard University, his alma mater. Soul Rep co-founder Anyika McMillan-Herod studied with him at his last academic position at Prairie View A&M. It was there that Dr. Shine was honored with the distinguished achievement award at the Black and Latino Playwrights’ Conference held at Texas State University in 2014. He and James Hatch co-edited what is considered to be a major work in the canon: Black Theater USA, the landmark two-volume anthology of African-American theater writing.
This year, Soul Rep has themed its season-opening festival “Black Men Illuminated.” This decision is in response to what they observe as the “dimming of the contributions of black men.” The two-act program presents 10 short plays, three poems (performed by their author, Keith Price), and an excerpt from Shoes, which was authored by Shine. Fourteen pieces is a lot for one evening’s program, which lasts three hours.
Directors for the plays are Soul Rep’s founders Tonya Holloway, Anyika McMillan-Herod, and Guinea Bennett-Price, plus Ashley Oliver, Richard Quadri, Nedra James, Ed Smith and Shelly Williams. On opening night, four of the 10 plays were ready, avoiding the problems that affected the other six.
The high point of the festival was the first-act closer, Tinder…Sucka by Inda Craig Galvan and wonderfully directed by Guinea Benett-Price. A comedy with four characters — Leona (Tatiana Alexander), Candy (Jasmine Gammon), Max (LeJoseph Johnson) and Samuel (Kassy Amoi) — this work is successful because of the fully fleshed-out writing, direction that positions the actors such that they can punch their characters through, and the laugh-out-loud performance of Jasmine Gammon.
Honest Abe by Kyndal Robertson and Camika Spencer (directed by McMillan-Herod) and Dear Bruh by Shemetra Carter (directed by Smith) are two other more successful presentations; and Erin Turner’s The Way It Was/The Way It Is (directed Richard Quadri) is another winner. Jermaine Johnson and Emir Price are terrific in the latter, and Quadri’s direction results in a natural and well-paced scene that feels as if we just happened upon the two men playing a game.
The most memorable male performances come from Calvin Gabriel, Emir Price, and Douglas Carter, who is wonderful in Lessons from Einstein by Eric Jones (directed by Holloway), especially toward the end. Gabriel’s character Bruh 1 delivers the didn’t-see-that-coming moment in Dear Bruh.
Sadly, some of the presentations in this festival simply were not ready on opening night. The problems were not with the playwriting, but rather with direction, most of them suffering from pacing — unnecessarily long dramatic pauses that slowed things down severely. This contributed to a longer-than-necessary show (hopefully that has been corrected in week two). Like Fireflies by La’Charles Purvey (directed by McMillan-Herod) felt endless; Lessons from Einstein was similarly slow; and Harlem by Jared La’Pread (directed by Oliver) was painfully bogged. In all three cases, it resulted in a performance that was not fair to the actors or the stories. Another problem with some plays in the festival was inaccurate and/or inconsistent dialects.
The idea of a themed festival is great, and with this particular theme, there is power in seeing so many black men onstage. These are actors who know their craft and who invigorated their characters’ stories. With some tightening, the Shine Play Festival could be a magical time at the theater.