Last night’s BTE’s production of Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy served as a reminder of the power of theatre when it is honest, thoughtful, and fearless. Rebecca Clark (CC ’13), took a multi-faceted play and, together with her cast, boldly approached the difficult material. Part of the difficulty of this play is that it does not follow a traditional plot trajectory. The characters do not go on a linear journey; rather they swirl about in hysterical series of fragmented vignettes. The story opens in a jazz club, featuring a beautifully voiced Shelby Sykes (MSM ’14) as the jazz singer, which set up the structure of the show. It featured shifts in tempo and rhythm, melodies that were recycled and riffed upon.
The vignettes wove together anxieties of a young girl, Negro-Sarah, who could not accept her exterior appearance or her interior experience as a mixed race woman. Negro-Sarah locked herself in her apartment, her powerful imagination bringing about several physical manifestations of her discomfort over her parentage and subsequent appearance. These manifestations included both feminine forms, including the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, and Sarah’s Mother. Jesus, Patrice Lumumba, Sarah’s Jewish lover Raymond appeared as well, providing masculine voices to the crisis of racial identity.
Morgan Owens’ (CC ’13) work as Nergo-Sarah provided the fragile delicacy of a nervous breakdown. Her performance was nuanced and subtle, and allowed her cast mates to shine with larger than life characters and a vast energy as the manifestations of anxiety. Owens made this story personal, the rest of the cast made it universal.
The show’s success was due in large part to the commitment of the manifestations. The ensemble work was powerful; it was clear that a great deal of care was given to how these characters related to each other and their maker, Negro-Sarah. Part of this care was written into the work—at times Negro-Sarah would introduce a piece of text that each of the manifestations would have a chance to repeat in a following vignette. The text would be the same, easily recognized by the audience, but each character came at the poetry with his or her own charge. The audience heard it differently each time, each delivery had a new edge. Once again each of these deliveries could stand on its own, but this cast was mindful to use each repetition to peel back another layer of the psyche of a woman and a race trying to figure out how to look at itself without judgment and cruelty.
Kai Johnson (CC ’15) as the Duchess of Hapsburg and Sabaah Jordan as Queen Victoria Regina were particularly compelling. In one of the first vignettes, the women sit costumed as Victorian Royalty applying white face make up, lamenting the continuing presence of Negro-Sarah’s father. Johnson and Jordan navigated the poetry of their text and the underlying emotional life of loathing and fear marvelously. The audience leaned forward. Their stillness was highly charged, and extremely effective.
Tenderness was hard to find in the show, which often deals with self-loathing and angry resentment but when it was provided it did not go unnoticed. In one particularly moving scene, Lamar Richardson (CC ’15) helps Kai Johnson cover her balding scalp (each of the characters created by Negro-Sarah’s mind dealt with extreme hair loss) with patches of hair. Richardson carefully covered any bald spots, and Johnson watched herself become beautiful again in her mirror. It was simple, it was human; it was the work of two extremely thoughtful actors.
Moments of such stillness earned the right of frantic rushing in other vignettes. Randolph Carr’s (CC ’13) exuberant energy as Patrice Lumumba provided a jolt of life and energy. Sophie Jelke (CC ’16) did the same as she expertly navigated the hysterical energy of Negro-Sarah’s white mother. The same energy came in a dramatic finale when Negro-Sarah’s manifestations crawl from the aisles to torment her to suicide.
On the outside of Negro-Sarah’s mind, Landlady Jasmine Sudarkasa (CC ’13) helped the audience understand the play with comfortable, warm direct address. She was charming whenever she appeared, from her extremely fun opening improv to her final, simple line, “the poor bitch hung herself.”
Care was taken in the creation of this show. The ensemble understood how to build off of each other, thus the show worked best when the vignettes were staged together without the hindrance of a transition. At times, transitions were distracting because of unnecessary length. These breaks brought the show to strange halts, and the production had to work to bring the pace back up. However, Rebecca Clark is a director who understands tempo and rhythm, and it pays off as she conducted this piece to a powerful crescendo. The cast was costumed beautifully and theatrically. These actors sparkled. It was a cue heavy show as well, so congratulations to stage manager Bintu Conteh. She called the show like a pro.
My trip to the Funnyhouse forced me to look at the uncomfortable reality that there is oftentimes very little peace between the interior and exterior human experience. It also allowed me to see that if theater is mindful and bold, it is the perfect medium to examine that discomfort.
setting the scene via Shutterstock