Written by Elizabeth Ann Foster
From where I sat, Where We Stand was lackluster and at times intimidating in spite of a powerful performance.
Entering a town hall meeting with signs plastered throughout. Coffee and doughnuts are on stage for those arriving, just as any hospitable community center hosting a town meeting might offer.
The house lights never dimmed. No announcements to silence phones or unwrap candies. No program booklets. Almost inaudible, a simple melody begins, hummed by Donnetta Lavinia Grays playwright and solo performer, gaining in intensity as she walks down the aisle from the rear of the theater. Some audience members gently join her repetitive pensive canticle, lightly reminiscent of a Pentecostal veneration. Humming evolves into verse, “We all come back around to the end of the street, then come back around, them come back around.”
A seemingly compelling mystery emerges as Grays unfolds a hero’s story of of temptation, exile and perchance redemption, transforming into multiple illustrative characters to guide us. We imagine our hero outcast toiling just outside town, exhausted, on fruitless rocky land, reacting to a mysterious well-dressed benefactor. It is enigmatic and imaginative, thought provoking, powerfully presented, but leaving questions to the viewer participant.
Visions of a seed, scythe and spade possessed by the benefactor to transmute the town enrich the mystery, and appear often in the narrative. The seed may represent the hero’s future, a spade to nurture the seed, and the scythe of the angel of death. Language is rich, often non-discursive – salted ground, sour air.
It seems the mixed messages of our The Pied Piper of Hamelin were sufficient to gently coerce the audience to engage, clap, hum, sing, eat donuts, and vote. Some audience disengagement – one audience member texted constantly while another opened a newspaper to read.
Volunteer audience members read words of fellow townspeople quoted from Harvard Professor Dr. Cornel West and Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This preceded a vote to determine the fate of the mystery character. Afterwards, two audience members asked me to explain the voting scene.
This is a one-person 90-minute monologue with no intermission. Grays alternates performances with actor David Ryan Smith.
Claire DeLiso‘s scenic bare stage design interpretation was austere. After removal of the coffee service on stage before the town meeting began, we see only a chair and at one point a box for Grays to stand on. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene is credited with costume design consisting of a red sock hat, tan nondescript pants and t-shirt partially covered with a vest.
Confronting temptation from the devil in a reference rich story, Grays performance was powerful. The stamina needed to perform this solo show with the intensity required is staggering. Her energy filled the space. As she came up and down the aisle her eyes pierced those of audience members, forcing rapt attention. One gets the feeling we will be seeing a great body of work from this actor.
Going all the way uptown to see this production is worth the subway if not cab fare.
Where We Stand – by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Directed by Tamilla Woodard
WITH Donnetta Lavinia Grays or David Ryan Smith
Scenic design by Claire DeLiso; costume design Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene; music director and dramaturg Nehemiah Luckett; artistic producer Rachel Karpf; lighting consultant Christina Wantanabe; production management Gary Levinson; production stage manager Norman Anthony Small.
Women’s Project Theater WP 2162 Broadway and 76th Street NYC 10024 January 31-March 1, 2020. Tuesday – Thursdays 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sundays 3 p.m. Tickets $39 – $89 by phone OvationTix (212) 352-3101 or toll free (866)811-4111 (am-9pm Monday through Friday 10 am-9pm Saturday-Sunday at box office 30 minutes before show or at ovationtix.com . Limited number of Rush tickets are available 30 minutes prior to opening at $25. Run time 80 minutes no intermission.
WP THEATER (Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director; Michael Sag, Managing Director) is the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting the work of women+ at every stage of their careers. Founded in 1978 by Julia Miles as Women’s Project Theater, WP Theater has earned acclaim as a home for women+ theatermakers, historically marginalized in the field, to hone their craft while becoming leaders, change-makers, and advocates in the industry. To date, we have produced more than 600 Mainstage productions and developmental projects and published 11 anthologies of plays by women+ artists. WP Theater is proud of the ways in which we have made a difference in the artistic landscape of New York and beyond, and we continue to forge forward by offering these artists a platform to develop and present their stories.