Friday, March 11, 2016

Nothing Routine About It

People are always talking about what a fabulous art and music town this is and they're right.

But, my god, it's an absolutely killer theater town, too and witnessing yet another fledgling theater company's work tonight, I am dumbstruck yet again that there's so much theatrical talent in Richmond, onstage and behind the scenes.

After seeing Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow was Enuf" last week, there was no way I was missing out on the play written ten years later as a response to it, namely "For Black Boys Who Have Considered Homicide When the Streets Were Too Much."

Right on, right on is all I can say.

The two films have been rotating in repertory at Firehouse Theatre, so their artistic director welcomed the crowd, impressing upon us how incredibly lucky we were that Heritage was presenting these plays on alternate nights.

And, man, he wasn't lying.

Like "Colored Girls," the story was told in choreo-poem form by six black men identified only by the number on their chest.

It was a terrifically talented ensemble cast, but also very disturbing in that I had only seen one of the actors onstage before.

Honestly, given their acting chops, I don't even know how that's possible, but there you have it. Like everything else, it's just easier to be white, no matter your profession.

Through a series of vignettes and using no props except six black boxes, the men told their stories of knowing they were born only to die too soon.

In one scene where they danced, the crowd cracked up when they imitated white boys dancing. A sad scene involved a little boy telling how he used Nina Simone records for solace during a difficult childhood.

Millennials didn't get it, but older members of the audience laughed out loud to references to the TV show "Dark Shadows" and its vampire hero, Barnabas Collins. I may never have seen the show but I definitely knew of the dated reference.

In many ways, the play came across as a tragedy with one man explaining that, "Nobody came, nobody saw. I was just another routine autopsy."

But each of the men also told of wanting to love and be loved despite being told that black boys aren't supposed to be loved.

The crowd about lost it when #17 knelt down in front of a woman in the front row and, with a slow jam playing in the background, made verbal love to her while stroking her hand and staring deeply into her eyes.

I am rain. I come to make love to you.

When he returned to stage, she turned to the audience and said, "Don't fuss at me," knowing that every woman in the room was wishing she'd been chosen.

Adrift after his woman leaves him, one man addresses his woman, saying, "You say you love me so much, more than Patti LaBelle likes to sing, more than Martin Luther King had a dream," trying to figure out what went wrong.

Another, a successful IT guy who only wanted to be comfortable in life, has his world turned upside down when, while working late, he's picked up by the cops for a rape nearby simply because of racial profiling.

I am an endangered species but I sing no victory song.

Watching such a powerful play unfold, it was tough not to resent that we still live in a world where works as penetrating as this don't get produced nearly often enough and actors as compelling as these don't show up in enough productions around Richmond despite their talent. And I can say that with some authority because I see so much of what does get produced here.

Which brings us back to my original point (Stay on script, Karen), that we are incredibly fortunate that a new theater company, dedicated to producing more works by black playwrights and casting more roles with black talent has joined the robust theater scene we already enjoy.

In an era of #BlackLivesMatter, I think we can all agree that black art matters as well and that Richmond will never be the best theater town it can be without including more of it.

Enter Heritage Theatre Company, take a bow and keep up the good work.

You're just what this theater town needed.

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