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Frank’s Girls and Space Relations stand alone in StageBlack’s New Play Festival

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Dallas/Fort Worth has been in a flurry of activity this summer with multiple play festivals injecting much needed creative energy in what would have been another hot and uneventful summer. Hopefully this trend continues and each producing company receives the support and financing they need.

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StageBlack: A Festival of New Plays, now in its 4th year broke new ground by debuting a bi-coastal production schedule with the presentation of the same five play shorts in New York City and Dallas.

Per Jiles King, founder of 7th Stage Productions which produces the festival, “going bi-coastal was a simple game of chance. The festival was produced in Dallas and NYC at various times over the last few years. Due to job demands, I was not able to produce StageBlack in either city this year. However, production teams from both NYC and Dallas felt the festival should be a mainstay and took the reigns to produce it in both cities.”

Running only this weekend with three remaining shows, the festival features the work of playwrights Eric Dickens, Cherie’ Monique, Bernard Tarver, Lou Johnson, and Kendra Augustin. Monique’s play “Frank’s Girls” and Tarver’s “Space Relations” clearly stood out in front of the pack with the other pieces either feeling incomplete or simply disjointed.

The first play in the lineup was Dickens’ “Late Nights, Early Mornings” and opened to the loud and amorous sounds of a couple full-throttle near the end of vigorous love-making. After that climax, the play completely fizzled. In the story, we find a young couple, Zanobia, played by Cyndi Thompson, and Joshua, played by Isreal Henry dealing with a serious case of the ‘love unrequited blues’ despite their obvious sexual compatibility. Theirs is a union of convenience, with Zanobia merely existing in the relationship out of obligation due to a previous medical scare, and Joshua wanting more out of life as the primary provider of their family, to which he constantly pressures her to do something to lift them out of life’s doldrums and she steadfastly refuses to do. Enter former college boyfriend Quincy, played by Stephen Warren and she is even more conflicted about her life options but in the end, remains with Joshua.

There were many things in this play’s production that were just off. Sound cues were not consistent, including a good blocking technique used in which Quincy, now a rising music star, serenades his old college flame with a John Legend song using only an acoustic guitar and his own voice. It could have worked but when the clip ended, it ended abruptly and seemed very amateurish, taking away from the moving emotions displayed by Thompson, who delivered an exceptional performance throughout the piece. Her acting style is reminiscent of acting phenom Kimberly Elise and she employed everything she had to make Zanobia completely believeable, despite not having all the necessary tools through directing choices. One blemish that took away from her work was a costuming choice. Thompson is voluptuous and for the medical diagnosis and treatment she has experienced, an effort should have been made to camouflage or pad her very ample assets to fall more in line with what she has been through.

Thankfully, “Frank’s Girls” followed this effort and this outstanding ensemble knocked the ball out of the park and it is still flying in space somewhere. This play was clearly the standout of the evening. Monique’s writing was crisp, the characters were well developed, the dialogue was sharp, and the storyline progressed naturally. Directed by George W. Donaldson, III, in this play we find Rayla, a New York City journalist played excellently by the extremely talented Jerrica Roy, at home in Fulton County Georgia for a family visit. Ever the headstrong, irreverent daughter, Rayla constantly bumps heads with her Georgia peach of a mother Vivian, played to the HILT by acting powerhouse Patricia E. Hill over what she perceives to be Rayla’s looking down on the family because of their humble circumstances. Adding to the family dynamics is Rayla’s effervescent and bubbly sister Liliana, played with zest by the talented Jasmine Gammon, and father Frank, played by David Butler, who is no stranger to Dallas and Los Angeles stages.

As with all families, initial meet and greets are somewhat mild and contrived and the same holds in this story. But as the family moves to the dinner table and the tension between Mama and her headstrong daughter simmers to a rapid BOIL, all hell breaks loose after Rayla delivers the dinner prayer with sarcasm and obvious disdain for her mother. Vivian tries to maintain the peace by showing motherly concern for her daughter’s marital status, holding up Liliana’s pending nuptials to her fiancee Mark as a source of hope, to which Rayla goes off on a tirade of innuendos about his peculiar grooming habits and perceived sexual orientation. As far as Rayla is concerned, “men serve a single purpose in my life and that is NOT to be my husband,” to which Vivian retorts “so you just being a hoe.” As mother and daughter bicker back and forth and Liliana becomes very perplexed, Frank breaks his silence by declaring about this food “this shit is DELICIOUS!” Finally, Rayla drops a major bomb about a family secret, essentially delivering a checkmate to her mother, who rushes out in tears. Frank retreats outside with Rayla in tow and this is where Butler demonstrates why he is one of the most sought after actors in Dallas. In a touching father/daughter scene, Frank shares with Rayla the secret to life, using the constellation as a metaphor, for “Love’s Great Story.”

Following intermission, the festival took off with the HILARIOUS “Space Relations”, directed by Trlica Wafer and featured outstanding acting led by Butler as the neighborhood mainstay Al, and featuring Dominique Rider as Evans, a bougeous new neighbor, and Henry making a return as Richie, the local homeboy. This ensemble and the story just SIZZLED and once again you see Butler at his finest along with Rider and Henry who delivered excellent characterizations.

In Tarver’s tale, we find an aging neighborhood with For Sale signs going up everywhere and young urban couples like Evans eager to capitalize on a soft real estate market and purchase homes they are able to fix up and start their American dream. Only problem is, the dream meets resistance in the form of new neighbors like Al who defiantly mark various street parking spots as their territory with personal items like Al’s chair or a neighbor’s BBQ pit. Evans arrives to check on this house and wants Al’s parking spot. Wrong choice. Al delivers a litany of superiority as the neighborhood elder mixed with a healthy serving of profanity. When Evans becomes frustrated and threatens legal action, Al barks at him dismissively “I got your f*cking court law” and sits back down in HIS chair, not budging for his new neighbor. He enlists the support of local Richie, who points out to Evans where everyone lives and the items they have marking their spot. As Evans leaves Al and Richie alone, you can look in the old man’s eyes and see the despair that his entire world is rapidly changing and there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it.

In “Papa,” written by Lou Johnson and directed by Marvin Walker, we find another young couple working hard just to make it. Robert, played by Stephen Warren receives a late night call informing him that his father is in the hospital and things don’t look good. At first his girlfriend, with a return performance from Gammon, doesn’t believe him and thinks the call was a female booty call until he shows her his Smartphone, to which she retreats to a position of semi-support. As the dialogue between them progresses and relationship issues are introduced, we learn they are a couple in crisis with family history playing a major role. This play felt completely disjointed and not believable at all, which could be attributed more to the writing than the actors’ efforts. Concepts of familial relationships, infidelity, multiple sexual partners, and other issues really deserved more exploration than was given in the story. As a result, the actors could only take their characters as far as the writing allowed and in this case, it simply wasn’t enough. And the cell phone sound effect which sounded like a real fire alarm, almost prompting everyone to exit the premises didn't help.

Likewise for “Stranger,” written by Kendra Augustin, directed by Catherine Luster, and featuring the outstanding acting talents of Nik Hobson as Joel, and Roy making a return as Violet, the writing in this piece crippled what could have been a powerful look into the issue of racism as it exists in the 21st Century. Joel and Violet are an interracial couple cohabitating with an 8-year daughter Gracie. Violet discovers that Joel has purposely kept their 10-year relationship a secret from his family, which makes her livid. When a life-changing request is made by Joel involving their daughter, Violet responds indignantly. Joel tries desperately to connect with his woman and she rebuffs him over and over with the same race-based comments. Despite a superb effort by both Hobson and Roy, who often went at each other with the intensity of a Venus/Serena Williams tennis match, the superficial treatment of race and this perpetual racist banter was entirely too repetitive and lacked teeth. Perhaps this effort should be a part of a full production, with a treatment being given to Violet’s self racial complex, Joel’s ambiguity, how the couple navigates the terrain of living in a post-racial America on a daily basis (HA!), including raising a biracial child in two families that don’t affirm their relationship or a society that really doesn’t get them, despite our comments to the contrary. Then, and maybe then, this story would work.

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