by Brittany Crowell

A large group assembles on East 47th street at First Avenue donning headphones and looking towards an apartment building.  Passers-by wonder what is happening until, at 5 pm, three men similarly sporting over-the-ear headphones suddenly come to life and begin moving gracefully atop three benches.

I Couldn’t Tell You Why, written by Harrison David Rivers and commissioned by Refracted Theatre Company, is a brief interlude where audio and visual collide to create and complicate the story of a young Black man’s relationship with his father, and how that relationship affected his view of himself and his ability to find and commit to a healthy relationship.

Upon arrival, audience members are handed headphones and told to stand on the street side, face this way, and wait.  There is some delightful music composed by Noah Therrien to entertain you until the piece begins with a jovial and lighthearted description of what you will see, how you should behave, and what to do in case something goes wrong.  Refracted Theatre has considered most scenarios, and you feel held and guided throughout this unique theatrical experience.

L to R: Kyle Starling, Marcus Zebra Smith, and Azi Coppin in I COULDN’T TELL YOU WHY; photo by Kayla Williamson

Once the general directives are out of the way, director Tova Wolff’s movement starts up in a youthful spirit, with three visual performers (played by Kyle Starling, Marcus Smith, and Azi Coppin) moving jubilantly about, designating space with colorful sidewalk chalk and remembering how Casey’s dad taught him to cross the street.  The theme of youth continues throughout, with actors using children’s toys like chalk and jump ropes to portray the various visual elements of the narrative.

Audibly, Rivers also folds timelines on top of each other. His storytelling layers present conversations onto the past until we’re unclear if the “slap” that we’re hearing is coming from father or lover; if feeling the need for punishment is a present threat or a ghost from our narrator’s past.

In contrast to these moments of refracted narrative, the climax of the piece is incredibly clear and straightforward.  Both audio and visual storytelling seem to slow down when we reach the moment that changed everything and watch the car (a centerpiece of Wolff’s choreography) transform into the bathroom at the birthday party and see the performers look out at us, pulling us deeper into the intimacy and danger of the moment.

I Couldn’t Tell You Why is running through May 30 (with possible extension to June 5 and 6 if weather causes cancellations).  The audio portion of the play, expertly assembled by sound designer Drew Sensue-Weinstein, can be listened to independently after the close of the performance on Refracted Theatre Company’s short play podcast, The Swell.

The piece itself and its brief run “… all happen so fast.”  I Couldn’t Tell You Why is a compact, deep and impactful 30 minutes of theater, and worth catching before (sooner than you might think), it’s all over.

I COULDN’T TELL YOU WHY – by Harrison David Rivers; directed by Tova Wolff

WITH – Jonathan Burke (audio – Casey), Daniel K. Isaac (audio – Liam), Ivan Moore (audio – Dad), Kyle Starling (movement), Marcus Smith (movement), and Azi Coppin (movement).

Sound designer, Drew Sensue-Weinstein; compositions by Noah Therrein; production stage manager; Morgan Yachinich. Produced by Refracted Theatre Company:  Tova Wolff and Graham Miller, co-founders and artistic directors; Kayla Williamson, marketing director; Rachel Maria Stuart, managing director. Through May 30.  30-45 minutes.