This was the first year that Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Festival in Black and White was done in conjunction with the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. An institution at 937 Liberty Ave, awkwardly tucked beside Planned Parenthood and a saloon; there’s not much signage other than a sandwich board. Up three flights to the theater proper, the minimalist set sits surrounded by platforms with audience seating and backboarded by painted corrugated steel on 2×4’s.
Minimal in all aspects, but wondrous and comforting to know here sits a cache of talented writers, directors and actors who need only the lights of a stage to perform rich, audacious miracles. Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Festival in Black and White is a celebration that transcends diversity. By cutting out the inherent racial barriers that can plague local theater, this festival’s strategically implemented diversity (Black playwright/White director; White playwrights/Black director) supersedes color bias for the sake of greater truths. Human is human, and drama is universal.
A limit of 5 actors. A 30-minute window. As minimal a set as possible… and FREE to boot! The only disappointment was attendance. These small rafters should have been filled. Most of Pittsburgh is missing a true gem right down the street from the outdoor festival.
In FJ Hartland’s “Sacred Vows”, the audience is immediately pressured into participation: Please rise for the bride! This story is a visceral concoction, beginning with the absurdity of Natashia Renee’s clairvoyant pastor regaling a haplessly naive couple with the unexpected realities their life together will include. Jomo Ray, as the groom, literally sweats with his whole essence, glistening and dripping with anxiety, compelling his acting to a psychosomatic denouement. Christine Marie’s pixie-like animation, compounded by a high-fashion mockup of a wedding dress made out of newspaper (she looked like a debutante from Krypton) builds to a culminating breakdown. The dress falls apart til the actress is near nude, her lines become wildly agitated by sing-song ennui: I’m afraid we’re making a mistaaaaaaaaake. She falls into the front row of the audience, engaging with the the poor soul who happens to be sitting there; asks her advice, tells her to shut up and flips back and forth with her future husband. It’s a time-traveling bent on the absurdity of marriage and the crescendo of strange action makes this play hysterical and beautifully weird.
Daphne Austin’s “No Winners” as well as Michael Curry’s “Crossing Sacred Lines” both show the power of dialogue with sober complexity.
“No Winners” is an emotional roller coaster, a jarring up-and-down bleeding of realizations between two women who have lost their sons to gun violence. Shanita Bivins and Shenita Williams are as energetic as electrons caught in a snaring circle, repelled and attracted by the same forces in conflict. The blame, grief and sarcasm is present and livid in their powerfully evoked acting choices. Williams’ simple face contortion when broadsided by a statement about her son’s death has thunderous, silent strength. I think there’s a certain power in actors knowing what to do with their hands. Mannerism is real, wrapped in the body and wrapped in the mind. For this heavy-handed of a play that kind of grounding has gravity. (Also would like to point out that Bivins’ pantomime with a cup of coffee had enormous control, a very impressive detail).
You don’t see black women break down often. It takes a tidal wave. But goddamn…the emotional vigor in this play made a hole in the earth.
In addition Devaugh Robinson and Lyn Starr’s acting chops in “Crossing Sacred Lines” was so accessible: real, raw and fluid. You could chock this up to writer Michael Curry’s impeccable dialogue and director Kim El’s sharp attention towards true mannerism. It should be acknowledged that pure dialogue can be overly-didactic and dull. This play sensationalizes the platonic energy of ethics, allowing for two black pledges in a Greek fraternity to argue over the acceptability of exploitation as a means to brotherhood. A powerful message; but all the more powerful by the two actors’ ability to give each side a lancing argument. They truly characterized the power of a question, and made the debate as compelling as a high stakes boxing match.
Another powerful piece of this festival was Nik Nemec’s cozy “Home Again, Home Again.” Though, it is simple math. Take a snarky gay dispossessed 20-something + one pot smoking grandma (who is adorably made fake-British from a stroke) and you have a clear path towards that A+. You can imagine the heart of this play: let the old British woman in your mind groan: You’re a handsome young maaaaaaan! while grabbing her grandson’s cheeks and rocking his head.
Hazel LeRoy and Nik Nemec had a very visible rapport. The jokes were well constructed and the conflict of the play felt mild, but not unimportant. It had the essence of a romantic comedy with the pleasure of the unlikely bromance of a young gay man and his grandma; a multi generational coming-of-age story. I give the momentum credit to director Wali Jamal who understood the use of movement in a space so small, and gave a nice portrait examining the little inner-conflicts that exist within the walls of a loving home. Endearing, neurotic, self-conscious & witty; with great dead pan.
Kim El’s “Mental Case”, directed by Andrew Huntley II, is a science-fiction dive into the interrogation of a mass shooter and the incredulous potential of a human being’s dehumanizing acts. While the concept is compelling, I found the play to be a bit distracting with unanswered questions: who is this childhood friend detective who is allowed to interrogate a mass-murderer on his lonesome? Why aren’t they being supervised? And not to spoil the crap out of this play, but why is this evil alien conqueror divulging the facts of his species’ entire plan for no given reason at all! Kim El is a resounding talent when it comes to authentic dialogue, lingo and rhythm, but I found this play a little too self-serious and missing answers to motivation that could have provided a satisfying story and ending.
Ray Werner’s “Stay” is also an experiment with high concept. Two dogs book reservations to the Ace Hotel and are met with discriminating pretentious humiliation by the maitre’d and waitress. Here’s a cool playful idea. Are these people dogs? Are they furries acting as dogs (their reservation was for “Fuzzies”)? With the entire scope of the conflict being an allegory for the racist and gentrifying element that the Ace Hotel represents in the historical context of East Liberty, I felt a lack of clarity on substance. The play is absurd, but it’s confused about it’s absurdity.
Actress Brenna Conroy’s work as a small terrier-like pup was well-executed. The yips were studied. She inhabited this character of being a dog-like human in that setting. I felt an alienation to the project with the rest of the ensemble. There was a sort of strange dragging with which the comedy of the piece couldn’t catch up to itself. The stunts of the play (humans drinking from dog bowls and being put on a leash) could have captured a bit more dangerous and surreal stakes. The commentary was only surface-deep, much like the puns that made up the jokes of the dialogue. The tension of the play could have been more vicious or satirical, but it just seemed stilted and half-baked. I wish there had been more risks.
Altogether, this play festival is an amazingly talented array of actors, writers and directors that celebrates diversity by moving far beyond color into the heart of what connects us all: drama. Every play is adventurous and bold, in its own right, and it is absurd that the seats are not completely full for every show. Pittsburgh’s missing out. Pittsburgh Playwrights is delivering fantastically.
Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Theatre Festival in Black and White continues its run through June 12th. For an inside look and detailed performance schedule, check out our preview here. All performances are free to the public but for more information, click here.