The title My Tidy List of Terrors may mislead some to expect a play full of whimsical worry à la Shel Silverstein. Nothing could be further from the show on stage at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Local playwright Jonathan Norton settles the pain and paranoia caused by the Atlanta Child Murders on the characters and audience alike. Inside his pressure-cooking fish bowl, a simple coming of age tale takes on epic proportions. Director Cora Cardona mixes in ritual dance, mask and projections seamlessly. The result of this recipient of the 2010 Diaspora Performing Arts Commission is a story that commands reflection and respect.
From the summer of 1979 to the spring of 1981, some 30 people from Atlanta were abducted and killed. Most were children and adolescents and all were African-American. In the middle of this terror, Vara (Nadine Marissa) is trying to raise her son, Ishmael (Joshua Darius Jackson). Fortunately, the affluent family that she has cooked for has agreed to let her move in temporarily. This sets the stage for intra-racial tensions caused by socio-economic divisions and differing styles of parenting.
Charles (Douglas Carter) and Gabby (JuNene K) have a son, too. Stevie (Timothy Owens II) is 9, where Vara's son is 14. Put them under the same roof and the clashes begin. To complicate matters more everyone comes to the table with their own baggage. Charles is a pastor who has lost his flock. Gabby mourns the loss of her role as the preacher's wife. Ishmael is tormented by being 14 and not baptized yet. But the biggest burden belongs to Vara. She blames herself for the disappearance of her cousin Reva's (Renee Miche'al) child to the snatcher.
Norton writes the play like a game of solitaire leisurely combining the characters, confident in the Atlanta Child Murders' backdrop to tie it all together. The result is a pretzel of plotlines peppered with some powerful scenes.
Nadine Marissa plays Vara as the archetypal single mother trying to do what is right. Her authentic nobility stands in contrast to the assumed superiority of affluent employer, Gabby. Junene K creates a Gabby bent on belittling Vara. Their relationship evolves as they work out the difference in their stations.
Likewise former Pastor Charles and Ishmael work on his evolution to manhood and pursuit of salvation. Douglas Carter and Joshua Darius Jackson establish a relationship with such a strong father/son dynamic their discussion of baptism is not only believable but also real and immediate.
The best work of the show is when Ishmael finally gets Vara to talk to Cousin Reva. Renee Miche'al and Nadine Marissa, in their climactic reconciliation, show how the paralysis of grief and guilt can begin to ebb.
The play ends with resolve but not resolution. It seems to say that making it through is about making do. The murders aren't solved but the relationships are sound again. And that's what's important. After all, burdens bared are burdens shared.