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Daarel Burnette

Gripping ‘Good Bones’ at Studio Theatre explores Black gentrification

By Daarel Burnette II 

This article was originally published in Dc Theater Arts on May 22, 2023, here.

In the spring of 2019, a protest broke out in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC, after a T-Mobile store owner was told by the police to turn down or off the clanging Go-Go music he’d blasted from outdoor speakers for decades.

Anger had been swelling for years over who in the neighborhood would have access to shrinking resources, who the police would police, and who the neighborhood really belonged to.

That scene has now been deftly brought to the stage by Studio Theatre in Good Bones,written by James Ijames and directed by Psalmayene 24.

The play forces its audience of mostly white DC residents to think critically about their own role in Black displacement and the sharing of space through the use of unsuspecting characters, the Black gentrifier.

Its acting is gripping, and the set is dynamic, though the plot is at times wanting.

Good Bones was commissioned in 2019 by Studio. Ijames, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fat Ham, wrote the play based on his time in the neighborhoods around Studio Theatre and growing up in Philadelphia, according to Studio’s artistic director David Muse.

It adds to a growing genre of art that explores the Black gentrifier, who’s conflicted about their obligation to give back, their own understanding of “authentically Black,” and their newfound ability to afford.

Middle-class Black people are significantly more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, according to a 2015 Stanford University study. This act is often spurred on by their attempts to escape anti-Black racism in white suburbs, deep kinship with family and friends in low-income neighborhoods, and bias embedded in the real estate industry. But it prevents Black children from accessing better schools and exacerbates the wealth gap, since homes in Black neighborhoods don’t accrue value the way they do in white neighborhoods.

In Good Bones, Aisha, played by Cara Ricketts, and her husband Travis, played by Joel Ashur, move into a fictionalized city undergoing a rapid demographic shift. Earl, a local contractor played by Johnny Ramey, questions the way Aisha talks, what she does and doesn’t know about the local neighborhood, and her attempt to revitalize the once-abandoned home, which is haunted.

Ashur and Ricketts bring to the stage the sort of authentic chemistry that makes their newfound love believable. Their dance breaks, which co-stars lighting produced by William D’Eugenio, is both well coordinated and entertaining.

There were moments when I thought the plot could move beyond the sometimes-predictable frictions communities across the world experience when class and race clash. We’re only given glimpses at some characters’ backstories. Some of the monologues are redundant and plodding.

Nevertheless, sometimes it’s necessary to say over and over again to an audience that their actions have consequences. That makes Good Bones worth it.

Dr. King’s last night alive in powerful ‘Mountaintop’ at Greenbelt Arts Center

By Daarel Burnette II

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

What resonates most about Greenbelt Arts Center’s rewarding twist of the play The Mountaintop is the way Director Rikki Howie Lacewell and her crew deftly deploy sound, props, and lighting to place, humanize and deify Martin Luther King Jr., masterfully played by Ryan Willis, on the day before he was assassinated.

In one scene, King, conspiratorial, frustrated with the direction of his movement, and visibly exhausted, twists the receiver of the black rotary phone situated in his Lorraine Motel room to assure that the FBI is not spying on him. He then dashes off into the bathroom where we hear for 15 seconds the sound of him ranting and urinating before stumbling back to his desk where he manages to sketch out the outlines of the Poor People’s Campaign in less than two minutes.

In another particularly emotional scene, sound designer Jim Adams ramps up the noise of a Memphis thunderstorm: whooshing wind, splattering raindrops, and ear-splitting cracks of lighting, which sends King’s heart racing: he’s not scared of the KKK or the American government or God (who’s here cast as a woman). But, it turns out, he’s petrified of lightning.

The whole of Black American history can be so depressing, violent, and overwhelming for its consumers that playwrights are prone to sum its parts up into more palatable, usually uplifting stories about heroes and villains. This focus on the extremities drains civil rights leaders of their fallibilities, distorts our mainstream understanding of how average Black and white people navigate the bizarre nature of America’s caste system, and, outside the theater, has us all on the constant lookout for the next magical hero who will fight today’s perceived villain.

The Mountaintop, which was written by Katori Hall and debuted in 2009, interrupts this narrative.

On the evening of April 3, 1968, King is serviced at the Loraine Motel by Camae (Lydia West), an attractive maid with a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes stuffed in her bra, a sketchy past, and unusual ideas on what Black civil rights looks like.

Camae, it’s revealed partway through the 90-minute play, is an angel of death, and King begins to contemplate through a series of monologues what Black folks will do without him leading the movement.

It’s clear from the opening lines of the play that Director Lacewell, who also designed the set, spent an inordinate amount of time during rehearsals paying attention to detail.

Willis’ southern drawl, which he impressively maintains throughout, is eerily similar to King’s. The blocking made it clear there was thick sexual chemistry between Martin and Camae.

And the lighting interchangeably halos Camae and Martin.

You’re reminded over and over again through this powerful script, Lacewell’s choices, and Willis and West’s stealth acting, that King was an imperfect man. His socks are stinky and have holes in them. He begs for a cigarette when he gets anxious. Before his wife calls to update him on the latest threat she’s received, King perversely stares at Camae’s backside.

You’re also reminded, though, how much hope Americans placed in King to snuff out our caste system and how he so boldly volunteered to do so.

Lacewell’s prologue leaves us with a call to action that I found stirring. She manages to do with Black history what more artists should: complicate, elevate, and force us all to reflect on our varied roles.

Black Canadians confront racism in ‘Consecrated Ground’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse

By Daarel Burnette II 

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.

In the opening beats of Consecrated Ground, directed by Lorraine Brooks and showing at the Laurel Mill Playhouse, we’re introduced via a black-and-white slideshow to Africville, a century-old Canadian fishing village made up of 600 Black descendants of enslaved Americans.

Lopsided wooden shacks seemingly slide down the hills they sit on, litter is strewn about in the streets, and luminous signs hang from lamp posts: Boil the water before drinking.

In the next beats, we’re brought into the tidy home of the Lyle clan, shushing a crying baby, gossipping about the latest goings-on in town and navigating the latest explicit and implicit acts of racism that punctuate their lives, the most glaring of which is the Canadian government’s plot to demolish Africville.

Laurel Mill serves up an appetizing, historically informative version of this 1999 play, written by Black Canadian George Boyd and making its U.S. debut. Despite costume and set inconsistencies throughout and a few poor directional choices (more on that later), its plot is gripping, its characters are relatable, and its theme — Black Americans’ cross-continental 1960s fight for a safe home in Nova Scotia, Canada — is worth telling.

Actress Jacqueline Youm radiates as Clarice Lyle, the strong-willed mother, wife, sister, and niece, fastened to her family legacy, and determined to fight back against the local government, despite threats of violence and her husband’s moral ineptitude. It’s hard to look away from Youm’s stage presence and intimacy with her castmates. She’s out of her league.

Africville is one of hundreds of communities established in the decades after the abolishment of American slavery when millions of Black Americans fled the South’s brutal labor conditions and apartheid government for better-paying jobs, land, and agency.

The problem, as Consecrated Ground explores, is that Black Americans found in these newfound homes some of the same racist ideas and policies that severely restricted their movement in the South.  For the white residents, Black people represented cheap labor, competition for jobs, and the potential devaluing of their homes. And they lashed out.

They refused to educate Black people’s children.  They harassed and lynched. And they passed a series of housing policies that squeezed Black people into increasingly destitute corners of the cities.

More than 10,000 American municipalities up until the 1960s passed sundown laws, which made Black settlement illegal.

Black people who boarded ships to head to majority Black Caribbean nations like Haiti, or West African colonies like Liberia, faced armed resistance, disease, and starvation.

Canada is not excluded from this phenomenon. The Great White North, as Director Brooks pointed out during a poignant introduction to her play, has long enjoyed a reputation as a refuge for Black American slaves, but has not yet reconciled with its own anti-Black history.

“Racism is worse in Canada,” she said she was told by her mother, who was Black Canadian and made the counterintuitive decision to move back to America.

“Africville matters,” she said. “Their story matters.”

In the play, Africville is plagued by government neglect: there’s no plumbing or electricity, and “life-sucking” rats scamper through the homes. This has resulted in a cynical, distrustful relationship the Black residents have with the Halifax officials.

Clarice is smitten with her newfound husband, Willem Lyle, a crooning carpenter, played by Brock Brown, and signs over the deed to the home. That’s a move she comes to regret when Tom Clancy, played by Nik Henle, knocks on their door with an offer of $5,000 to sell the home.

The city is looking to build a park, bridge, and more harbor space, and Africville is in the way.  Midway through the play, the family experiences a death and Clarice is determined to use the nearby cemetery, though the city says there’s no consecrated ground.

Throughout, we’re confronted with the variety of ways Black people have responded to acts of discrimination: rage, passivity, compromise, and courage.

In between a creative split-screen set designed by Lorraine Brooks, characters’ unique personalities shine (unusual for plays about racism): Jimmy “Double Speak” Willis, played by Martin Young, copes with a stutter and what to do with the unusual wealth he’s built; Groovy Peters, played by JoAn Monplaisir, searches for true love; and Clancy struggles with alcoholism, and his own internalized racist ideas about the community he says he’s trying to save.

I was distracted, though, by some of the director’s historically inaccurate choices: the majority of the characters had deep Southern Black American accents, though, according to the script, they’ve been residing in Canada since 1812; Clancy’s cigarette never lights up or puffs out smoke; and several of the characters donned African print, though that style of clothing didn’t become popular until the Black Power movement of the 1970s (the play takes place in the 1960s). The Ankara hand fans the characters cooled themselves off with in one church scene didn’t become popular until the last decade, in fact.

Brown has a lack of commitment during particularly devastating moments: he coldly pats Groovey’s back when she relays a story of being beaten by white men in the street, soberly holds Jacqueline up when she mourns the loss of their child, and awkwardly walks off stage when his wife decides to leave him.

Never mind. Youm, who also served as assistant director, makes this play crackle with energy. She prods with exacting focus when she suspects her family’s livelihood is in danger, yelps with conviction when she spots a rat scampering beneath the table, and grieves with heft when she loses her child.Brooks punches up with Consecrated Ground and, through a powerful epilogue, gives  Americans much to reflect on.

‘Blue’ Oversimplifies Police Brutality, Delivers Stellar Performance

Review by Daarel Burnette II

This article was first published in DCTRENDING here.

Blue, an opera by librettist and director Tazewell Thompson, and conducted by Joseph Young and Jonathan Taylor Rush, is a coming-of-age tragedy that’s as much about forgiveness, identity, and the false hopes and expectations of Black men, as it is about police brutality. While the plot is as simplistic as the set, the outsized performances by Kenneth Kellogg and Joshua Conyers make the show worthwhile.

The two-hour-and-fifteen-minute-long production at the Kennedy Center, featuring music by award-winning Jeanine Tesori, and a majority Black cast, a rarity in opera, was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

In the few years since, Americans have witnessed the videotaped murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer; a #BlackLivesMatter rally that amounted to the nation’s largest protests in America’s history; a movement to “defund the police;” a marked uptick in crime in majority Black communities; and a concerted political effort to ramp up policing.  

Knowing all this, Blue’s plot came across as wanting. 

A father, played by Kenneth Kellogg, takes on a job as a police officer for the stable pay, benefits, and an opportunity to fight crime. But his son, played by Aaron Crouch, is soon radicalized by what he sees as abusive treatment of Black men by the police and, to the chagrin of his father, starts participating in street protests where he’s shot and killed. The father, in his grief, goes into a rage and vows revenge against the officer who killed his son.

A bit surreal.  

Yet this stellar cast sings with such conviction that a rousing aria, performed by Ariana Wehr, in which she evokes real-life police shootings, generated in me the same flash of anger and grief I feel every time I watch yet another video of police officers senselessly abusing Black men. 

And I can’t help but admire Thompson’s decision to cast the father as a police officer (an earlier draft cast the father as a jazz musician). That’s a plot twist that we’re now grappling with in the real-life beating of Tyre Nichols, a Black father, at the hands of four Black Memphis police officers. 

Are Black police officers first Black or blue?  

In the opening scene of Blue, we see the work of costume designer Jessica Jahn, spot lit by lighting director, Robert Wierzel, switches from the uniform of a Black man – a Negro league baseball crew coat, baggy blue jeans, and a fitted sports cap– into the uniform of a cop–creased, blue slacks, crisp, blue collared oxford, blue peaked hat, silver officer badge and a black handgun. 

This opening scene is the most dynamic that the set, designed by Cindy Oxberry, ever gets.  Throughout the production, cast members roll visibly cheap and mismatched, black and white furniture on and off the stage, which is backlit by Harlem row houses whose lights confusingly flicker off and on.  

In the next scene, we’re serenaded with an aria sung by a whimsy cast of girlfriends played by Ariana Wehr (soprano), Katerina Burton (soprano) and Rehanna Thelwell (mezzo-soprano), as they first praise the mother, played by Brianna Hunter (mezzo-soprano), for snagging a “big-everything” Black man but are then horrified to learn she’s expecting a Black baby boy.  How, they ask, will she protect a Black boy from a racist society? How will she (?) a Black boy from the police?  

The plot delves into a century-old trope perpetuated by the casting of Black men on stage: victims with no agency, or rage-filled perpetrators. This is damaging and something I hope the opera world will soon move beyond.

Blue is at its best during arias where the cast, led by the baritone reverend (Joshua Conyers), grieves over the son’s loss. But there are several subplots that leave the audience with more questions than answers. This renders the complications around police brutality for opera’s majority-white audience distant, abstract, and easy-to-fix.    

Further, the impact of rampant crime in Black neighborhoods on victims and perpetrators–what accused police departments are solely charged with addressing– is a distracting hole in Blue

Today, civil rights activists are in the throes of a century-long battle trying to make Black communities safer and policing more effective.  It’s a drama worth accurately telling.  

As the opera community grapples with its stained history of Blackface, refusing to cast Black performers, and subjugating Black stories, Blue is a welcome attempt to reverse course.