Dallas — Bishop Arts Theatre Center is celebrating a significant milestone, its 25th anniversary, as part of the celebration, BATC introduces six authors for this season’s playwriting festival, Down for #TheCount Women’s Theatre Festival: A Celebration of Female Voices. Director Camika Spencer has effectively staged these works by Emily Mann, Blue McElroy, Kiana Rivera, France-Luce Benson, Kat Ramburg and Gabrielle Denise Pina. Spencer found a through-line which creates a rhythm for the festival and affords unfettered space for the strong, snappy voices of the playwrights to resound.
Emily Mann is currently the artistic director for the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton in New Jersey. Under her leadership, the Center was awarded a Tony for Outstanding Regional Theater in 1994. This play was initially produced as part of a series about the university’s connection with slavery. Princeton’s fifth president, Reverend Samuel Finley, was a slaveowner.
Under the Liberty Trees by Emily Mann opens with Grandma’s (Rhonda L. Francis) wonderful singing. She is the elder in this slave family of Jed (Kassy Mannous Amoi), Susannah (Sha Wheaton), Nathaniel (Tony Washington), Ella (Nylia Jackson) and Rachel (Amyla Jackson). They have been on the Finley family’s land for many years. The family learns there is to be an auction of the Finley’s possessions which includes the slaves. They will be put on the block. Dr. Benjamin Rush (Dan Burkarth) is sympathetic with the slaves but powerless to stop their sale. Since these events are imminent, Jed recognizes the need to talk with Nathaniel about pride, strength and the importance of knowing who you are.
Recently, TheaterJones talked with Oak Cliff native and playwright, Blue McElroy about this play and her interest in the stories people avoid. Cardboard Box is about a conversation where nobody listens.
Mother (Octavia Thomas) and Father (George Donaldson) are the divorced parents of Mary (Alicia Rodriguez). Their house has just been sold so Mother and Mary have to move. Everything has been packed except Mary’s room. The parents keep imploring Mary to pack, but she keeps explaining why she cannot, that her box isn’t big enough to hold everything which includes her memories. As Mary explains it “You can’t pack up a life.”
Puzzy is Kiana Rivera’s first play, and the first written for the theatre by a Pacific Islander who is also an out lesbian. It brings an olio of voices not commonly heard to the stage: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pasifika voices and queer voices. The play was part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of 2017.
Mele (Alicia Rodriguez) is the central character who finds herself being expected to identify as one thing or another when she is bigger than just one label. She is torn between the need of approval of her grandmother, the expectations of the Jehovah Witness, and her truth. Of the six plays, this is the longest at approximately 45 minutes. Comedy keeps this piece from becoming maudlin. Actor No. 2 (Octavia Thomas, Actor No. 3 (Sha Wheaton) and Actor No. 4 (Tiff Canady) are its driving energy. Wheaton stands out because she is so hands-down funny.
France-Luce Benson is an established award-winning New York based playwright with a commitment to the Black theatre and to the stories of African and Haitian descendants. The Talk brings intimacy between two women forward in an unanticipated way. Manu (Rhonda L. Francis), Claire’s (Tiff Canady) mother, goes into her room in the middle of the night to talk. She needs help with a sex toy she recently purchased but it unsure how to use. Claire does not want to have this conversation with her mother, and definitely not in the wee hours of the morning. Manu resorts to screaming in an effort to force Claire to cooperate. They delve into what becomes a freeing talk for both of them.
The First Step by L.A. based Kat Ramsburg is a very short three-character play with Callie (Guadalupe Reveles), Nick (George Donaldson) and Bus Driver (Dan Burkarth). Callie stands frozen on stairsteps, her first in New York City. Her bright-eyed enthusiasm is beginning to annoy the Bus Driver because she hasn’t moved from the steps to claim her luggage. Whether one has lived in New York or not, the play is relatable to anyone who has left a familiar place and arrived somewhere else with jubilant anticipation of something wonderful.
Uncommon Revelations by Gabrielle Denise Pina is a beautifully undulating story about survival and redemption. We meet Delilah Green (Tiff Canady) on the day she has decided to save herself and reconnect with her gay son who has been rejected by his father. Her quiet manner exudes strength in contrast with the large booming physical and vocal presence of her husband Mustard Green (George Donaldson). Yes, the character is named after a vegetable. However, this is not a comedy.
Scott Davis’ production design works quite well for the plays. There are two large windows at the back which stay throughout the festival. What changes is if and how they are dressed, and how they are lit. Transitions between the plays is organized, smooth and short. Without using a lot of set pieces, levels which makes it easier for Spencer to use the entire space for staging.
In a festival of plays by and about women, men could get lost but that doesn’t happen here. Impressive aptly describes the work by Kassy Mannoua Amoi. Burkarth and Donaldson slide into each character to the extent that they are not seen as the same actors from an earlier play. True, that’s the point and the job, and it is nice to see both achieved.
Tiff Canady shows range as she moves from the daughter teaching her mother how to use a dildo to the wife leaving her husband. In addition to her glorious singing voice, Rhonda Francis also has good comic timing.
This is perhaps the strongest of the Down for #The Count festivals because of the strength of the plays, cohesiveness of the direction, and the actors’ performances.