This Black History Month, the local theater scene is offering teaching and learning experiences through emotion-laden lessons crucial to Black life and language, past, present and future.
Some Black theater events during Black History Month are dedicated to historical tales told with a smartly lyrical twist. Some are personal stories dedicated to love’s wrongs, rights and struggle. Others are wildly expressionist, vividly dreamlike and as freeform as their playwrights’ language allows, while lurching into the pains of addiction.
All, however, are equally magnetic and worth your investment and investigation.
Camden Repertory Theater’s production of playwright Aishah Rahman’s ‘Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in A Gilded Cage’—running now through March 25—finds actor Ozzie Jones (as Charlie “Bird” Parker) and Desi P. Shelton (as Nurse Jacobs) amplifying the voices of young women of color while poetically telling a parallel story of Parker’s addiction and death.
“That’s Camden Rep’s mission, to raise the stature of Black voices unheard and often ignored,” said Camden Repertory Theater Managing Director Pamela Bridgeforth. “This play will elevate what we do at Camden Rep in a way that is profound – hers (the late Rahman) was a different way of looking at things. This play experiments with the concept behind choices – especially regarding the role of women in our society.”
Shelton continues talking about Rahman’s ‘Unfinished Women’ story – as free as free jazz – and its manner of speaking to the issue of unwed pregnant women, as one that “plays with time and form and the notion of struggle, exquisitely and poetically.” And yet, there is a stirring and modern realism to Rahman’s dreamlike epiphany, one that Jones notes comes from “seeing opioid addiction in the streets every day,” as a nod to his portrayal of Charlie Parker and his addictions.
“I’m playing the addict,” said Jones. “And the research for this is everywhere you look in America, especially in Camden.”
‘The Mountaintop‘ at The Uptown! Performing Arts Center in West Chester—until Feb. 19—offers Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Katori Hall’s tale of a “warts-and-all” Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of his Memphis assassination, and in the company of his all-enveloping better angels.
“Seeing how human that Katori Hall made MLK was daunting,” said Brianna Miller who plays ‘Camae’ in ‘The Mountaintop’. “Everyone has an image of him, and this one is one witty and haunting and real.”
Director Ryan George adds that Hall’s language is inviting and that her portrayal of MLK’s often Christ-like figure shows an civil rights leader torn and weary.
“He had been leading the Black rights movement from the late 50s and throughout the 1960s, and Hall shows how that had to have taken its toll,” said George.
In the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, actor Chaz Rose tried to take everything that he – and we, the audience – have learned about MLK and turned it on its head. “’The Mountaintop’ brings us into his world, the weight of the world on his shoulders as well as what was going on at home… seeing past the façade of being a great orator and leader. MLK had the same doubts and needs as all of us.”
As for playing the character of MLK, Rose played to the humanity as opposed to the holiness, “his anger, his love, the richness and depth of who he is a man,” noted the actor.
‘Clyde’s‘, currently running at Old City’s Arden Theatre until March 12 – from playwright Lynn Nottage – warmly and humorously tackles the tale of once-incarcerated kitchen staff from a Pennsylvania truck stop diner an opportunity at personal and profession redemption through the shared quest to create a perfect sandwich. ‘Clyde’s’ director Malika Oyetimein believes that it is the themes of “hope and how elusive hope is and how scary hope is,” that drove her to want to make this play – a feeling she trusts will resonate with Arden audiences.
“Hope, however, is the thing that gets every character in this play through. Except Clyde.”
Theatre Exile director J. Paul Nicholas and actor Ang Bey discussed playwright Loy A. Webb’s ‘The Light‘ — running now at South Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile through Feb. 26 — revealing how Loy’s visceral tale of how rapidly wrong things could go with the most loving of romances affected them from the start.
“If you can feel the humanity of what the couple is going through in this play – in real time – it is absolutely beautiful,” said Nicholas. “It is emotionally jarring – uplifting, yet at the very same time, that it can be soul crushing.”
Bey talks about ‘The Light’ as a play that is instantly relatable to all who view it.
“This is my parents. This is my culture. And that culture is one of Black womanhood, Black manhood and Black love,” she said. “’The Light’ is growing up with a vocabulary that enables me to express love and work through its challenges, its confrontations — all while expressing how much these characters love each other.”
Love. Conflict. Loss. Reconnection. Redemption. All of this is part of the Philadelphia area’s rich theater scene during Black History Month.