Reviewers: Steele and Rue
- All the production elements were simple enough to let the two actors shine
- This is a very important story to have onstage right now
- While the production succeeded in getting its message across there may be some disconnect between the production’s goals and the play’s goals
In our pockets
Steele: I know and love Niya Colbert, and I’ve partnered with EgoPo before.
Rue: I came into this show knowing absolutely nothing except for one of the performers.
Steele: I thought the lights (Amanda Jensen) for the movement between Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s (Niya Colbert) presentation and when she was in the prison with Eugene de Kock (Paul Nolan) were simple and effective.
Rue: I completely agree. I thought the lights were really clean and efficient. The framing of the play where Pumla breaks away from the intimate prison scenes was largely informed by the changing lights. I had questions about the windows though–light was coming through them, but it felt like there was a lack of specificity as to what those lights meant and what any changes in them were supposed to tell me.
Steele: I agree. There was only one time when the lighting in the window made me feel like we had moved into the morning, but other than that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get from their shifts. I also wish the convention of Pumla’s character showing a powerpoint was used at least one more time.
Rue: Yes! Opening with the powerpoint set up expectations for me that it would be a much more consistent convention. I did think that the powerpoint was in a strange position for half the audience, so having it appear only once did remedy that for me.
Steele: I attributed that problem to the simple set, though I also found the position of the powerpoint strange.
Rue: It felt to me like the set design came first and the powerpoint was made to fit after, rather than integrating the two together (which, seeing as the powerpoint only happened once, does make sense). Moving into sound – to be blunt, I thought the sound was a little distracting. The opening cue was really hard for me to hear. And there were a number of cues that felt out of place or unacknowledged and took me away from the intimate immersive experience (like the brawl happening outside the prison room in the middle of the play).
Steele: I really craved more of the natural sound of the room for such an intimate setting. I loved when we heard the chains rattle. I wanted to hear water pouring, chair squeaking, pens tapping, etc.
Rue: Sound notwithstanding, the costumes provoked a pretty big question I had about the whole show for me.
Steele: Oooh, what are you thinking?
Rue: The big thing I walked away from the show thinking was, whose story was it? A lot of the different elements of the show had me torn, but costumes was a big one. Overall, I thought the costumes were really effective: simple, clean, told us a lot about the characters quickly–Pumla in her muted pant suit and Eugene in a bright orange prison uniform. But the costumes made Pumla recede a bit to me. She blended more into the gray of the set, whereas Eugene literally visually popped. It gave him more focus, in my opinion, by default.
Steele: OH, I was thinking about this too. I had a lot of thoughts around the fact that the play really does set this up to be Eugene’s story. He is the focus, his journey is the one we’re tracking. I hadn’t even thought about how the costumes played into that, but I think it did. I suppose that makes sense considering (if I remember correctly) it’s based on a book Pumla wrote about Eugene. Meanwhile, the set (Yoshi Nomura) felt appropriately simple to me (noting what we’ve already mentioned about location of the powerpoint).
Rue: Agreed. I appreciated the hard edges. Angular, and reaching out into the audience a bit – it felt like it was pulling me in but keeping me at a distance at the same time. I liked that give and take. I liked that the props were sparse. Felt very consistent with the rest of the vibe of the show.
Steele: Everything felt appropriately pedestrian. And I don’t think there was anything unnecessary on stage, which was important for such an environment.
Steele: Niya’s restrained strength was wonderful to watch. She has the skilled ability to move from completely professional to emotional. They both did a wonderful job keeping the audience engaged in a two-person show, which isn’t easy.
Rue: I completely agree. The performances absolutely took my breath away in this production. It felt like all the technical elements were kept simple to really let them shine. I thought they had really great chemistry and played off one another incredibly well. I was impressed by Paul’s ability to command so much power during his monologues when he was literally chained to a desk almost the whole time.
Steele: I agree! It’s what made the one time he did try to pull out of range so effective, because he’d been so strong in such a small physical space.
Rue: Yes! That moment terrified me. I was like, get ready to scooch, Pumla! This show played with my mind.
Steele: I thought Steve Wright did a great job. He let the performers shine. I felt a bit of inequity in how much “face time” house left was given to Pumla. Although the two of them are focused on each other at most time, as they should, I felt like Eugene was able to find more moments with house right than Pumla did with house left.
Rue: I noticed that too, and completely agree. Overall, I thought the production was really consistent in the narrative it was trying to tell and, as you said, first and foremost was able to let these performers be the power houses they are.
Steele: The direction was able to give us both character’s arcs with utter emotional availability, which was great.
Rue: I really loved the choice at the end to have the characters switch which sides of the space they commanded, once Eugene wasn’t chained to the desk anymore. I always like a solid visual to accompany an emotional arc.
Rue: I really think the play–in the writing–is set up to be Pumla’s story–she establishes the framing device, she’s our narrator, our tether, she creates the circumstances for their interaction to happen at all. Meanwhile, I thought EgoPo’s production pushed us to focus more on Eugene’s story than Pumla’s, and that created some tension between what the play might be trying to say and what the production wanted to say.
Steele: What I can’t determine is if that is a problem. In the curtain speech and marketing materials, it is noted that this production was picked to mirror America’s current race situation. There are plenty of stories set here in the States that could have tackled that issue. What I believe to be true is that EgoPo knew that this story takes place just far enough from their audiences’ reality (and I think specifically their older white audiences’ reality), and allows them to give a more unbiased look at the truth.
Rue: I completely agree. I think overall, the production really succeeded with that (kudos EgoPo!). What I struggled with was if there in fact was any tension between the intent of the story vs. the intent of the production. What can we learn by EgoPo pushing forward the narrative of the white character over the POC character without addressing that choice?
Steele: Yes, I felt that same tension. I want to believe that pushing the narrative of the white character over the narrative of the POC was in an effort to reach the audience they hoped to impact. This play is a good choice if they wanted to mirror America’s struggle with race. The new South African vs. Old South Africa is pretty much the same as “Make America Great Again.” White people’s fear that their way of life will shake as a result of equality is definitely relevant. Who was this play for? That’s a hard question. But I would say that the message of looking at the humanity of someone like Eugene is important. It’s important to look at where his fears came from that made him do what he did.
Rue: My initial impulse was to say that this play is trying to wake up white people, but after chewing on it, I actually think it’s for a much wider spectrum than I initially gave it credit for. Yes, making white people address their fears and irrationalities is super important and I think this play and production did that really well, but also representation in general is so important, and I can also see this production as a way for POC to get to celebrate their power. Pumla ran that room. I’d follow her anywhere, to be honest.