The Take Away

  • Keep producing R. Eric Thomas
  • It feels essential right now in the American theatre to hold a tough mirror up to liberal audiences, and this play is doing that work
  • Exquisite casting paired with good direction and collaborative production design makes the world go round
  • Asking questions is always better than answering them, and we’ll be thinking about this play’s questions for a long time

 

In Our Pockets

Hannah

I auditioned for the show, and read the script when I auditioned. I’m friends with both of the performers, and multiple members of the creative team. I also do distribution for Azuka, so I spent a lot of time walking around the city with flyers, talking up the show.

 

Elaina

I know/adore R. Eric Thomas (he was a member of Writers On The Rocks, which I dramaturg for). I’m friends with both actors, as well as several members of the creative team. I’m extra hype about new plays, and tend to view them with a more understanding lens– especially world premieres.

And we’re both white. 

 

 

The Script

Elaina

God bless R. Eric Thomas. Alert the media. Let’s continue to produce his work and uplift his beautiful, hilarious, important voice.

 

Hannah

Honestly, wow. I talked to someone yesterday who isn’t in the theatre community and had seen the show because they loved his writing on Elle.com.

 

Elaina

He’s high-key internet famous and now needs to become much more playwriting famous.

 

Hannah

Amen. What a nuanced, challenging play. I really appreciated the slow burn. I loved that we got to spend 70 minutes with two complicated, flawed women. I think this piece was functioning on about nine different levels, so it’s hard to know where to begin. It was dealing with race, but more specifically with authorial ownership, storytelling as a medium, white fragility, microaggressions, and also engaging with women’s relationship to creative success.

 

Elaina

Agreed. R. Eric only does things full-force, and I was astounded by the way these two deeply complex characters navigated their objectives, managed their secrets, and unfolded this tricky circumstance that shined a light on the dynamics between two storytellers, as well as a black woman and a white woman.

There was so much evidence of strong playwriting craft, as well as some excellent dramaturgy. R. Eric was blessed with Dr. Michele Volansky in that role– and she is a structuralist, which really served this tight well-made play. I learned things about myself from watching Holly (played by Brandi Burgess), and not in a pretty way. R. Eric’s portrayal of white fragility gave me insight into myself that made me lean in to his characters, rather than pull away.

The Performances

Hannah

I think R. Eric Thomas did a pretty genius job holding the mirror up to white women in a way that was alternately gentle, funny, and deservedly vicious. Also just wanna add that I really admired Brandi Burgess’s deftness in letting Holly be unlikeable when she needed to be. 

Elaina

Brandi Burgess! “Vicious” is a great way to describe it. She really let Holly suck sometimes, and I think that can be hard. Brandi’s portrayal made me cringe, and laugh, and lean in, and ache, and also sometimes I was uncomfortable because she was SO awkward. It was a delightful experience. I also appreciated the way that she slowly released her layers of vulnerability, too. A true gem, that Brandi.

 

Hannah

Both actors navigated so many hairpin turns like it was nothing. Shout-out to the extremely high level of craft on both their parts.

 

Elaina

Well, this seems like a great segue to talk about Queen Danielle Lenee.

 

Hannah

What a brilliantly restrained performance. For me, the moments with the biggest gut-punch were when Aisha showed flashes of legitimate and deserved anger, and then quickly reeled herself back in. I’m thinking specifically of the moment where she said, “MY MOTHER WAS A DOCTOR.”

 

Elaina

And then she had to regain control! Because she doesn’t have the privilege to be angry without being stereotyped as an “Angry Black Woman.” Because of course White Holly assumed that Aisha’s mother was uneducated. That moment showed me that Aisha probably navigates moments like that every single day with white people.

 

Hannah

Yeah, that whole exchange was so brutal. And then when Holly cringes in the corner, because she’s suddenly afraid of Aisha’s anger? Oof. 

 

Elaina

It’s so important to put work on stage that addresses microaggressions, as well as liberal internalized racism. This play doesn’t let you remove yourself as “a part of the problem,” it makes you sit with it.

 

Hannah

Watching the sustained onslaught from Holly was actually, for lack of a better word, deeply instructive. Like, this is what this looks like in the world, and because it’s theatre, we have no choice but to sit and listen and invest in this reality.

 

Elaina

Stories like this seem important as we embark on our Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre.

 

Hannah

Oh wow. JoUitAT should be the title of a new Barrymore sub-committee. Right? Too far? Not far enough?

Elaina

Full-shade-ahead. (Bless Leigh Goldenberg for fighting the good fight– we see you, girl!) ANYWAY! I do want to talk about moments that I have questions about after all of that gushing.

Questions


Hannah

Structurally, this play is tricky. If someone leaves the stage, the play is over.

Elaina

I’ll be honest that the beginning had me skeptical. I hadn’t read the script before, and I was immediately aware of the “oh no these women have to be trapped in this bathroom for the whole play for it to work” thing.

I think this was mostly very successful, though there were a few moments where inner-me thought, “I would for sure leave, and I think Aisha should too. Holly is obviously up to no good– PLEASE go back to the reunion tent and escape!” BUT, then there was this moment where Aisha opened the bathroom door, decided to close it, and locked it behind her… I was 100% in from that moment forward.

 

Hannah

I think because I had read the script, I was able to interpret Aisha’s choice to stay as an intentional move that upset the balance of power in a really exciting way. Like, Holly needs her to stay because of her feelings, but Aisha chooses to stay. She holds the power, and is actually keeping herself at a safe, academic distance from Holly. It made me lean in and ask, what does Aisha want here? I never felt like Aisha was trapped, which felt really important.

The Direction

Elaina

I suppose when I look back, I realize that she knew Holly’s game all along and was choosing to stay because some part of her needed to see this play out. You know, now I actually appreciate that the play doesn’t overly outline this for us. Because now I’m genuinely rethinking things about Aisha.

This realization also has me really appreciating Kevin Glaccum. There’s a version of this play where someone makes Aisha more obvious, more sneaky, more cunning– and I think that version would fail. I really felt Kevin’s work as the balance of power shifted difficult to navigate and I think he used a lot of tactics to fight against them.

Hannah

There were a few moments of blocking that felt unmotivated, but for the most part I think they kept the ball in the air. I really appreciated the distance onstage between the two women for most of the play – it helped maintain a high level of tension. Getting too close together is deadly, and when they finally did get close, it was always as a means of detonating an explosion.

 

Elaina

The balance of tension was strong. Kevin expertly navigated the ups and downs, while really pushing the arc of the climax through. At some points, the play felt so DANGEROUS– and it was two young women talking in a bathroom at a college reunion. Kevin is a director that understands tone as a weapon, and that volume rarely wins. He really balanced the careful method that women navigate tough conversation in a quiet, scary way. He also had two incredible actors to do that work with him.

 

Hannah

I think the way Kevin navigated tone was incredible. Such! A! Slow! Burn! I never felt preached to or yelled at, but also was 100% squirming in my seat.

 

Elaina

I do have questions about the choice to have Holly’s stand-up moments pan out to the audience. I felt like the light shifted ever-so-slightly, and I wasn’t sure why that was happening, or what my relationship to her as an audience member was supposed to be. It didn’t pull me out, but it felt very intentional and I couldn’t get a read on why.

 

Hannah

Agreed. Those moments are hard. They did pull me out a bit. In retrospect though, I’m thinking about how we got all of this weird emotional access to Holly in those moments. She was sometimes hysterical, sometimes awful, and sometimes definitely full of shit. But we were super present with her. We never got those fully-forward facing moments from Aisha. With that in mind, Aisha’s ending actually felt like a reversal of the stand-up dynamic in a fascinating way.

 

The Design

Elaina

I will say that I’m not a huge fan of a spooky thunderstorm being used to break tension, which was an occasional tool. The sound design (Melissa Dunphy) was present and minimal– I thought it was functional, and that the script didn’t call for too much, but I wasn’t blown away.

 

Hannah

I’m not sure how I feel about the thunder claps. They struck me as a little sit-commy in a way that I oddly appreciated, even though they were admittedly unsubtle. (I did really like the odd mechanical sound when they turned on the automatic faucets. The whole beat around the discussion of the sinks was tremendous.)

Elaina

Yeah, that was a great moment for so many reasons. Setting a whole play in a bathroom is hilarious, and I loved the minimal, but effective, use of the bathroom stalls. Overall, the set-up of the Bluver on a diagonal is one of my favorites, and the shape of the space felt really great to me. The set (Meghan Jones & Avista) had a lot of nice detail and was rocking the bathroom-sink-realism-vibe, but I did have questions about how fancy the bathroom was supposed to be. I feel like the script specifically referenced it being “the nicest bathroom someone had ever seen” and that pulled me out briefly.

 

Hannah

Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s a whole other very important discussion to be had here about Aisha’s relationship to privilege. But I don’t think we’re the ones to lead that.

 

Elaina

That line about the bathroom in the script put me in the place of asking, “So is this actually the nicest bathroom she’s ever been in and that’s saying something? Or is this the level of expensive bathroom that scenic budget could accomodate and they chose to work within their means?”

 

Hannah

Spatially, I still think this was a really accomplished set. I feel like Azuka is low-key bringing some super sophisticated design to the table.

 

Elaina

Aly Docherty (Lighting Design) is the real deal. I’ve seen her do some really dramatic, colorful dance shows, as well as some really nuanced subtle realism. I thought the design was delightfully restrained, and she saved the pop for the final moment of the play. I really appreciated her use of practicals to balance the space, but also felt like the tone of the play remained clear in a pretty florescent environment.

 

Hannah

I thought the lighting was noticeably excellent. In the way that good lighting design also is sometimes unnoticeable. I thought the final moment was lit beautifully. That moment is so complicated –

 

Elaina

The choice to have Aisha unlit, which gives Holly all of the focus, but none of the power.

 

Hannah

Her voice coming from the back of the audience felt a little like the voice of god in the play. It drove home for me that Aisha has the authorial power within the play itself, while Holly is the protagonist in her own mind, but can’t transcend her own limited understanding of “what happened,” and so can’t actually bleed off the stage into the real world in a credible way.

 

Elaina

We also have to give credit to the production power-house of PM Lauren Tracy and SM Terry Mittelman. Those folx can RUN A ROOM, and I’m sure so much of the success in this collaborative design is due to them. Kevin Glaccum and Azuka put together a great production team.

 

Hannah

God Bless. We haven’t talked costumes yet!

Elaina

The costumes (Shelby Kay) were really strong. Danielle looked exquisite, and really popped in that orange printed dress. I liked that she had a shawl that she fidgeted with– it happened in a way that felt character-based, rather than an actor-tick. I also really appreciated the choice to make Brandi more casual, in a blazer that wasn’t 100% properly fitted, and less done-up. Brandi is gorgeous, and they dressed her down in a really important way. I think that there’s a lot of vanity that can get caught up in costuming, but Shelby came in with simple, truthful pieces and everything felt just right to me. I knew so much about who those characters were as soon as they walked in the room. That’s good costuming.

 

Hannah

I was more than a little preoccupied with Aisha’s shawl and what she was doing with it, but that probably just says a lot about me. I agree that it felt character-based. It sort of cued me in to how Aisha isn’t actually 100% comfortable, despite her sterling exterior.

I’m really struck by how this piece was both super accessible and also extremely sophisticated. I feel like it’s really difficult to do that while talking about “hot-button” issues – how do you invite people to the conversation without blunting your perspective? The answer: produce R. Eric Thomas plays at Azuka.

 

Elaina

Azuka announced at the show that they’ll be continuing their pay-what-you-can ticketing policy, despite the funding for it being over. That, in combination with the three world-premiere productions by Philadelphia playwrights has me about to buy an Azuka t-shirt and wear it every day.

 

Hannah

It’s true that there is so much more to say about this piece and the actual questions it poses.  I think this play asks more questions than it answers definitively – it reminds me of a conversation I was having about Passage at the Wilma, too. People left that playing feeling really strongly. And in the end, it was super reflective of where those individuals were at on their Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre. The same applies to Mrs. Harrison. It meets you where you’re at, and then points you where you need to be headed.

 

Elaina

It’s also very clear to me that if we continue to produce more plays by people of color– our theatre community will expand, our audiences will grow, our casts will look more like our world, and we can have more positive experiences like Mrs. Harrison on Philadelphia stages.

 

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