Jane is a director and dramaturg

Shelly just finished her own Fringe run, and could use a nap

 

Shelly

So you should know that one of the things that is in my pockets – for the night that I saw Running Numbers and for right now – is that I am very exhausted.  Other than that, I discovered that I knew very distantly some of the performers in the piece. Theatre in the X is a totally new company to me.

 

Jane

I’ve worked with a lot of people in this company. I think that we should point out that we’re two white women talking about a piece by a black playwright about the black experience.

 

Shelly

Yes, that should be explicit.

 

Jane

Also, I saw this show in it’s other iteration in Malcolm X Park, and that really affected how I watched it.  I’m not sure we should talk about design elements for this one, because the production was very much about the performers and the settings were evoked with very simple props and costumes.

 

Shelly

Right. Honestly, most of what took me out of the piece was its design – but I understand that this was their first performance indoors.  I wish I could have gotten to see the outdoor space.

 

Jane

The experience was different in the park, and The Bank is a rough space.  It doesn’t allow for lighting or sound.  It’s still very much a bank, but the elements that make it a community space are very pronounced, too so it’s a distracting place to see a play, and it’s hard to get  a sense of place.  That wasn’t true in the park production.

 

Shelly

I’m so happy you said all this because that truly was one of the only elements that distracted me from the play.

 

Jane

I think some of the prop choices were helpful, like the bowl of beans, and Bree’s big headphones. On the other hand, Mr. Collins’ books didn’t seem to belong anywhere. And I wasn’t sure why he kept moving them and rearranging them. Kenny’s living room table was really specific and all the stuff on it gave a strong sense of place.

 

Shelly

Most of what distracted me was the way the space was utilized. I almost wish there hadn’t been any props at all, and that the audience was arranged a little more proscenium style, so we really only had the choice of focusing on the performances.  The bank lighting made it impossible for me not to scrutinize the rest of the audience.

 

Jane

It was like being in a classroom with restless kids. The only other design element was costumes. I liked Bree in her school clothes, and Ma in her work clothes.The black slacks with a restaurant tee were really evocative, especially because she was wearing them at home and at the school visit. Seeing the way that she lived in those work clothes really gave me an idea about her life offstage.

 

Shelly

I think that the real strength of this piece was whenever any of the design elements supported the world of the character. I want to spend some time talking about the script, because my playwright brain was going crazy. I could feel myself really resisting this “classic” plot struggle of Good Black Kid Struggling With The Pull of Thug Life, but at the same time, the incredible specificity of student loans and the college process made it hyper-real to me in a way that, as a white lady, I’ve never been able to access before (obviously).

 

Jane

In the midst of so much idea-work and devised work during this Fringe it was an absolute treat to see a well made, structured play. The writing is very tight.  Playwright Cheyenne Barboza doesn’t leave any loose ends, and she doesn’t waste any time.

 

Shelly

Yes, I agree with all of that. It was nice to feel like I was in the hands of someone who totally knew what she was doing.

 

Jane

The story is clear, the characters are motivated and truthful. There is so much craft in this script. And although, like you, I was also a little uncomfortable with the familiarity of the theme, I love that in the hands of a black playwright, it doesn’t end with the “good” black kid “getting out.” It reflects on how unuseful that fairy tale is.  CJ’s tragic flaw is not in his character or choices, it’s in his circumstances.

 

Shelly

Absolutely. We saw the characters in the full scope of who they are and what threads were pulling at them. I appreciate Barboza complicating the narrative in that way – something that that familiar story often misses.  I was really interested in what this play had to say about the American idea of “getting out” and being “better.”

 

Jane

Barboza gives each character’s response to the situation equal justification and gravity. For me one of the strongest moments of the play is when CJ’s mom tells Mr. Collins that a Community College education is good enough and that he has responsibilities at home. She completely won me over with her argument.

 

Shelly

If there was any small issue in this script, it was that I craved the playwright’s implicating the whiteness lie a little more explicitly in deconstructing that idea.

 

Jane

I agree, and there were places where I felt uncomfortable with the description of UPenn as this very welcoming utopia that goes unquestioned. It’s Mr. Collins’ alma mater, was his experience easy?

 

Shelly

Yes! I think it’s so real, this horrible line that the academia dream walks. I really feel like I have to roll my eyes when people praise the “Ivy League.” But it’s real that people go to college to be connected and be exposed to people, ideas, and avenues that they wouldn’t have access to before. As many problems as students have, I can’t deny that so much of what I’m doing now is thanks to not even the training I got from college, but from the connections.

 

Jane

Can I say what a relief it is to be discussing the ideas in a play because it’s so well written we don’t have to talk about structural issues or problematic presentation?

 

Shelly

Agreed! I wanted to talk about her use of this “Temptation Chorus” because I feel both like it was the most uneven thing about the script but also the most exciting thing. I wish they had more of an active hand in shaping the events of the play, although I enjoyed a lot of what they did as is.

 

Jane

I felt that it was much, much stronger in the park because the movement was freer, and they felt more impactful. They were able to tumble and crash and scream in a way that they couldn’t really in The Bank.  Scriptwise, I think it would be a very different play without them. CJ has such an internal battle, and they feel like anxiety manifested.

 

Shelly

I just wish that there was something they were giving me as an audience member that I absolutely couldn’t get from the character alone.

 

Jane

Oh, I felt like they were helping me understand the “twoness” (to borrow a phrase) that CJ is performing. CJ is a pretty measured character. He speaks and steps carefully, so the temptations helped me know that what’s going on behind his face is very different from the measured person he is (has to be?) on the outside.

 

Shelly

I can see that.  I guess maybe what I wish for is more, then. Which you said it had in the park.

 

Jane

I think Christina May did an amazing job of directing a show that is not really meant for the park, or meant to be in the round in the park.  The Bank sucked a lot of the life out of her direction.The staging fit better in the pavillion in the park and the characters were able to move much more among the audience, especially the Temptations.  In The Bank, and this may be because the performers were different, the pace really lagged in a way that it didn’t in the park.

 

Shelly

I felt that.  I’m glad you have this perspective, because my understanding of May’s direction from The Bank was that she was really adept at crafting strong scenes between characters, but not so much about engaging the space.  I think you’re right that the space is so so hard.

 

Jane

Also, it was hard to see this with new actors.  Walter DeSheilds played Mr. Collins in the park version and he is a powerhouse. His Collins was layered and dark and when he showed up at Kenny’s I literally gasped.   Donny Smith Jr., who took over the role appeared to be reading his lines off an ipad hid behind a file folder, which was unprofessional and disgraceful, and his constant paraphrasing was a real insult to the playwright.

 

Shelly

What?! I didn’t notice that at all!  But he was behind a lot of the pace lagging, in my opinion.  He was very wooden. It only worked in the moments that I could imagine Mr. Collins being straight-backed and cold.

 

Jane

Yes, he was responsible for a lot of the pace problems, and he wasn’t present with his scene partners.  DeSheild’s Collins was very affecting. It made for a very different play. Also, the actor playing Kenny had a very, very tough act to follow after Carlo Campbell did this role in the original. Carlo is a force of fucking nature– his Kenny was terrifying. This was the first role  I’ve ever seen that could really contain Carlo. Kyle Jackson was much more inward focused, and it made him less scary.  I also wonder if his background is in film  because his performance was  a little quiet and subtle for theater,  which also hurt the pace.

 

Shelly

I agree with that. I actually felt slightly bashful – rather than uncomfortable or scared – in the moments of Kenny’s gendered violence because I could feel that the actor wasn’t totally dropped in. That maybe he was resisting it because it was uncomfortable.

 

Jane

The actor who played Officer Gordon (he’s not listed in the program) brought the same excellent performance that he did in the park. I love that Cheyenne Barboza sidestepped the common mistake of creating a character who largely functioned to ask her hero questions and gave him an entire world with strong motivation and intention.

 

Shelly

Having a black actor fill the role of the cop did really great things to complicate our familiar narrative of the relationship between police and young black men.

 

Jane

Ok, can we talk about Mouse?

 

Shelly

YES.  I LOVE MOUSE.

 

Jane

Niya Colbert! Who is this brilliant actress and why isn’t she in everything? I want a whole other play just about Mouse. What an honest, giving performance. And so funny! Colbert has amazing timing.

 

Shelly

Do we know the gender of the character?

 

Jane

The actress identifies as female. I don’t know about the character.

 

Shelly

Yeah so Niya Colbert – can you be in everything I’m working on for forever?  Colbert kicked ass and I craved more of Mouse. I think – beyond her performance – one of the things I loved the most about Mouse was that they seemed like they were the most effective complicating element in the narrative – a schoolmate of CJ’s whose participation in “thug life” carried none of the angst we saw in CJ, but was still deeply personal and emotional.

 

Jane

I also really have to shout out to the Angelica Jackson! That role could have been villainous or played for laughs, but she was very sympathetic.  I hated her and I wanted to hug her and give her a day off.  It’s so easy to fall into tropes with an alcoholic character and she kept it very subtle. Watching her, you wouldn’t deny her a drink. And I also think it would be easy to overlook Corrine Love’s performance, but she also kept it very real.

 

Shelly

I think what I loved about her was how playful Love was.  That light playfulness allowed her to push deep into the tragedy of Bree’s character.  I think Jarrett McCreary as CJ has a great range, although I’m unsure what was holding him back in certain moments.

 

Jane

Overall, this is such a good play, and it deserves resources. Theater in the X gave it a really good launch, but this play belongs on the proscenium it was written for, with a full design team

 

Shelly

I want to see it in a different space, and I want people to give their fucking money to it.

 

Jane

Cheyenne Barboza is such a promising playwright.  She is the answer to my all secret dramaturgical wishes- skill, structure, depth and relevance. On top of that, she works on her own, outside of the Philly institutions that give feedback and mentoring.  Someone give this show a staging, and give Barboza all the support she needs to get out there and make more well crafted plays.  This is the kind of work that makes me really joyful about Philly theater

 

Shelly

Absolutely!  This is SUCH a solid play.  And I’m so happy to have gone to see it. And I’m so happy that Theatre in the X exists, and chooses to kick start plays like these.

 

Jane

Alright, is it pyjama time?

 

Shelly

Yes, I need a nap.

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