The Take Away
Gorgeous set, sound, and lighting design
Interesting, if sometimes inconsistent proposals about the role of art and memory
Some lack of structural clarity
In My Pockets
I know two of three of the performers in this piece, and have read Jackie Siblies-Drury’s most famous play (We Are Proud to Present), but I’ve never seen a production of one of her plays before. I also identify as an artist, both in writing and in performance. I’m a white woman and I think a lot about the contributions our art makes in the world, and when that should matter. Thinking about all these issues, this play came at a good time for me.
Thom Weaver designed a sparse set that feels like a portrait photographer’s eden – bare, white, a little clinical, but also rustic. In relationship to the lighting design (Amanda Jensen), the set took on incredible personality. Lighting shifts helped guide us through a play that, because of non-linear time sequences, could have been confusing without them. The Latvian Society’s shallow playing space could be a real hindrance, but for this show it evoked the theme of photography. The soundscape created by Chris Sannino was both sharp and comforting as the script required. LeVonne Lindsey’s costume design made the characters familiar to me, even in a potentially unfamiliar location.
Props master Alicia Crosby’s photographs for Mother to thumb through were a blank, glossy black that helped to drive home many of Siblies-Drury’s themes.
The questions I had about the performances are hard for me to separate from questions I have about the play itself. I had the sense that the actors’ experiences moved through so many different ideas, just like the play. I was searching for insights within their portrayals of the characters that would clue me into the message the play intended to send. Maybe the play itself was so dreamy that I couldn’t find the central idea within the performances.
Matteo Scammel (Calvin) delivered as the brutish, unkind, totalitarian boyfriend/artist, although there were moments where I questioned the utility of how brash his performance was in keeping with the rest of the piece’s tone. I always like Nancy Boykins’ work, and Jessica Johnson’s final monologue was breathtaking.
The moment when Girlfriend pushes up against Calvin’s immovable body, trying to extract something from his chest (his heart? His soul? Was she punching him?) was a deeply resonant moment for me. To watch a black woman try to physically affect the solid wall of white man was an effecting visual.
In general, I left with the impression that Geffers had done a steady job of crafting a piece that often felt like watching memories through a telescope with vaseline smeared across the lens. I liked the experience, even if there were moments where I didn’t feel like I could fully see the point.
This play was a thoughtful and honest meditation on how we remember or consider artists and their art. The power dynamics between a white man and his black girlfriend, and then between the black girlfriend and his white mother felt important, even if at some points that frame was more deliberately visible than in others.
However, it took too long to understand that this was not a play about interpersonal relationships. That Girlfriend would stay with Calvin because his work interested her, or because she felt she could see a side of him in his work that he didn’t display in their relationship is revealing. When we feel connected to a piece it’s hard not to feel connected to the artist who made it. Really asks what it costs audiences and artists when we discover that the beauty behind the art comes from a darker and maybe a more irreconcilable place in the artist. This is a valuable question and I wish it were clearer earlier in the play. We are so busy piecing together Girlfriend and Mother’s history with Calvin that we are unable to see them as three artists, rather than as two women mourning the loss of a man until the end.
Theater Exile made effective choices in terms of representation. Without knowing the complex stories of each member, the team appears to be diverse: mostly women in the cast and on the design team, a black playwright known for her work which includes explicit conversations about race.
Really never divorces the power structures that surround the characters from the overall message. Although the show is neither about being a black partner to a white man, nor about being a black artist, it does not shy away from those realities. As Calvin speaks from atop his dresser, basking in and then quickly resenting his numerous achievements, we see an extraordinary effect the white supremacist patriarchy has on men: inflating their sense self until it is so stretched out they become as buoyant and as vulnerable as a balloon ready to pop.
It’s strange that Siblies-Drury, who is so mindful of the issues of race and gender that surround her play chose to put so much focus on Calvin. He is the only character given a name and a full history. Meanwhile, Mother and Girlfriend remain identifiable through their relationships to Calvin, and I wonder if that is intentional. Either way, I longed to know more about Girlfriend.