By Brittany Crowell
“Take a look / Take a look at this girl / Take a look / She wants to be in your world”
The four glitter-clad crooners sing as the band plays along and we meet the six contestants of The Harriet Holland Social Clubs’s 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel. This play with music (written & directed by Colette Robert with music and lyrics by Dionne McClain-Freeney, co-produced by New Georges and The Movement Theatre Company), takes a good, hard look at the black debutante culture through a cheeky yet dramatic deep dive into the politics of the social club, the lives of the Star-Burst applicants, and the undertones of racism and slavery that permeate it all.
We follow the Society as they set up for the event and meet the debutantes in their dressing rooms as they gossip and prepare. By the time the debutantes have gotten through their first dance and are being introduced to the audience, the event begins to unravel. While the Emcee introduces the first three debutantes via their academic and social accolades, the second three introductions devolve further and further into comments on their physical appearance, ability to take on difficult labor, and domestic acumen. The choreography (choreographed by the concise and playful nicHi douglas) also begins to shift in tone from clear and careful to an exaggerated and affected mockery of the demure poise seen at your typical cotillion service. The dance becomes a puppeted farce performed for the cotillion audience, as the President encourages them to sponsor a woman as if she’s standing on the auction block for bid.
Suddenly everything stops and the strong ensemble of actors breaks through the structure of time to narrate what they see: how they see themselves; how they anticipate we see them. Mika Eubanks’ traditional white cotillion dresses are shorn and torn; some women are left half-clothed while others’ attire has been ripped apart in a literal manifestation of the metaphorical undercurrent of the entire piece.
From that moment forward, the piece is no longer about crowning Miss Star-Burst, but about the ways in which black women must adapt themselves to a white picture of success, society, business, speaking, walking, dancing, etc. in order to be successful; how they have to work harder to achieve half as much; how they have to deny parts of themselves or members of their community; and how they must learn to other-ise themselves in order to fit into a white, corporate, systemic world.
Upon entering the space, the scenic design by Teresa L. Williams immerses the audience into the world of the Renaissance Hotel Ballroom with side tables between the seats numbered for guests and a large stage that plays well as both catwalk and dressing room. Also worth mentioning are the lighting and sound by Stacey Derosier and Sadah Espii Proctor respectively who create the debutante environment while also highlighting the racism and parallels to slavery simmering beneath the surface. Appropriately for a piece about debutante culture, the make-up design is done by Fatima Thomas, a M.A.C. Senior Artist and hair and wigs are perfected by Nikiya Mathis.
The Cotillion will cut you deep. Its humor will bring you to laugh and smile, white its undercurrent guts you with the truths that black women must face and the position they have been put in. It’s charming and cheeky, many thanks to the performances of its amazing ensemble of actors and the quartet of singers who provide exposition, tone, and punctuation throughout the piece. The Emcee, played by Jehan O. Young also provides much comic relief as the character struggles to continue to wear the mask of the society and her true opinions and comments shine through each line.
Robert’s play is real and raw despite the performative poise of its subject matter. As the debutantes and the society fall apart in front of our eyes, we begin to see more and more of the humanity within each of these women and they become more relatable and sympathetic. The debutantes themselves are more than the perfectly mannered and well-coiffed women that get paraded in front of us at the top of the show. The piece explores what black women have to perform and endure in order to find “success” as defined (in this instance) by The Society.
The Cotillion is running through May 27th – make your way to the theater at ART NY, you don’t want to miss it!
THE HARRIET HOLLAND SOCIAL CLUB PRESENTES THE 84TH ANNUAL STAR-BURT COTILLION – written & directed by Colette Robert; music & lyrics by Dionne McClain-Freeney
FEATURING: Jehan O. Young (The Emcee); Akyiaa Wilson (Madam President); Claire Fort (Shellie Nicole); Caturah Brown (Kimberly Blair); Starr Kirkland (Melissa Bordenave); Aigner Mizzelle (Lindsey Dupree); Monique St. Cyr (Dominique Deanna Freeman); Portland Thomas (Alicia Roussell); Kayla Coleman (singer); Cherrye J. Davis (singer); Cristina Pitter (singer); Montria Walker (singer)
BAND: music director, keyboard, Dionne McClain-Freeney; drums, Zoë Brecher; bass, Serena Ebony Miller.
Scenic design by Teresa L. Williams; costume design by Mika Eubanks; lighting design by Stacey Derosier; sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor; hair & wig design by Nikiya Mathis; make-up design, Fatima Thomas; production stage management, Gracie Carleton; assistant stage management, Keyana Hemphill.
Produced by New Georges:Susan Bernfield, artistic director; Jaynie Saunders Tiller, executive director; & The Movement Theater Company: Deadria Harrington, Eric Lockley, Ryan Dobrin, David Mendizábal (producing artistic leader; & Ann James. Run time: 100 minutes. Through May 27 at ART NY (502 W 53rd street). https://newgeorges.ticketspice.com/the-cotillion