WICCANS IN THE HOOD / TRADING RACES (Brainspunk): Let’s talk about race, baby

Melanie Matthews and Steve Wie. Photo by Ashley LaBonde.
Melanie Matthews and Steve Wei. Photo by Ashley LaBonde.

One of the strengths of the Philadelphia theater community is its diverse voices; we’re lucky to have a myriad of companies, large and small, who place importance on bringing a conversation on race into their seasons. (Interact and the Arden deserve particular props in this area). And yet far too often we hear about wonderful minority actors struggling to find roles for themselves, and at least annually we seem to come up with at least one egregious racial oversight (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Julius Caesar come to mind as recent examples). So I’m usually quite happy to see a smaller company tackle the tricky waters of a race play successfully, in the hopes of maintaining an ongoing, strong-minded, and even-tempered conversation on race in the theater (not to mention the workplace, the court, the internet, and elsewhere). Brainspunk Theater keeps the conversation going with a pair of one-acts by Kansas City writer Michelle T. Johnson, WICCANS IN THE HOOD and TRADING RACES: FROM RODNEY KING TO PAULA DEEN.

In our first entry, WICCANS IN THE HOOD, Jonathan (Samuel Fineman), Kylie (Alexa Smith), and Violet (Catherine DeRemigio-Fichera), a trio of motley white worshipers, and their black guide Gabriel (Jaron Battle) choose a cemetery in a black neighborhood for their weekly pagan sacrifice. They’re met by Diamond (played with wonderful, even-tempered grace by Mahogany Walker), a local who quickly comes to odds with the trespassers. It bills itself as a race relations piece, (and there are certainly some uncomfortable trappings of discrimination about, especially between Jonathan and Diamond), but the meat of this show concerns spirituality, and turning towards faith in times of tragedy and indecision. It’s light-hearted and touching..

In stark contrast to the playful, uplifting spiritual message of WICCANS IN THE HOOD, our second show of the evening takes us to a much more existential, surreal place. We talk a lot about how theater is storytelling, but there is barely any storytelling to be had here; this is a debate, representative of the one happening at all times on a grand scale across the country: it’s pretty clearly a playwright’s thought experiment on her own feelings about the state of racism in America.

Photo by Ashley LaBonde.
Photo by Ashley LaBonde.

We’re thrust into a kind of star-spangled Sartrian hell, in which a pair of people personifying entire races must reconcile their differences, lest our country be wiped clean and begun anew. Our two contestants are “Bill Clinton”, a scruffy amalgamation of all white Americans, and “Eve” (Melanie Matthews), a fiery-tempered, well-spoken representation of the African American, who hem and haw and chase each other around in circles, rattling off attacks and defenses left and right, from the presentation of negative stereotypes from each race, to the white man’s plea that he cannot atone for the sins of the past, to the black woman’s anger at the treatment of Rodney King and Henry Louis Gates.

It’s not much of a contest, really. Bill is thoroughly dominated for much of the show by Eve’s bountiful charisma and righteous rage; she runs smoldering circles around him, and more and more we feel as though there’s not a conversation between races going on here at all, but a stern lecture from an angry playwright. However, as their imminent doom approaches, we finally get a taste of some real synergy between the two, and the pair do a fine job of portraying the frenzy of disagreement and the release of concession. We, of course, walk away with more questions about the issue than when we began, but leaving the theater your head abuzz from a stimulating argument isn’t such a bad place to be. [Walnut Street Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] June 8-29, 2014; brainspunktheater.com.

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