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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Melding today's obsessive desire for fame and wealth with the slave trade of the early 19th century, the African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTco) provides a wonderful discussion on self-enslavement that transcends racial and ethnic lines. To a great extent, playwright Marvin McAllister's Draft Day script become's a cautionary tale for how people from every walk of life can "settle" for something that is far less than their own inner potential.
In fact, just as the lights come down and the performance is about to start, you are handed the entire point of the play in the form of a quote by Harriet Tubman (which is highlighted above this review). The physical embodiment and soul of the quote is epitomized by one of the play's central characters, Miss Venus (played with sultry relish by Dionne Audain). Serving as a melding of African griot, spiritual trickster (in the manner of the Native American Kokopelli) and fear exorcist, Venus moves from one time period to the next trying to convince people that by accepting someone else's definition of ourselves, we are simply handing over our own self-determination and potential, in effect, choosing enslavement -- and that can happen to any individual, in any time period, of any color, ethnicity, religious background, or sexual orientation -- pretty much any and all of us.
Mr. McAllister's play comes at this theme by focusing on a basketball draft which pits two young men -- Kenya Manhattan (Mark Payne) and Mecca Roanoke (G. Alverez Reid) -- on the eve of arriving at their boyhood dreams. Kenya is filled with visions of his own greatness that amount to a self-determined price tag, while Mecca is bent on being a role model to the youth around him. Unfortunately, Kenya's complete infatuation with all that glitters and Mecca's fears of owning up to who he really is -- hold them in bondage. Confined by the shackles of their own self-perceptions they are kept from the greater roles that they could play within the world around them.
The story is well-written, though at times hard to watch, especially during the slave trader discussions. The crude terms that are used to describe the slaves are almost incomprehensible to hear, but most likely true to the historical record. Additionally, the character of Miss Venus is hard to like. Which again is true to form, since most devil's advocates (people pushing us to rise to our own inner greatness) tend to take us into the shadows of our own psyches -- something most of us are loathe to do.
Director Tre Garrett has made the words and story the focal point of the show. Thus Tracie Duncan's staging is minimal, holding only two chairs, a bench, some chains and shackles and a dais for the men to stand on.
Mark Payne as Kenya is all fire and rage, desiring to play the game not so much to be a terrific basketball player, but so that he can become the first $200 million dollar player. He has the business aspect all figured out; unfortunately the personal part and the sportsmanship have been neglected. Meanwhile, G. Alverez Reid's Mecca is a sensitive young man who is trying to get a handle on his own identity, while balancing family obligations, love and a desire to give back to his community. Each of the men give terrific performances while their onstage chemistry registers as childhood friends and friendly court competitors.
Michael Kramer and Anthony Gallagher, as Mr. Solomon and Mr. Noah, give impassive performances that fit the disturbing dialogue of their characters.
And Dionne Audain's double role as the mysterious 19th century Venus and the elusive 21st century Miss Venus, takes us beyond the surface of what may seem like a hard-edged individual. It's only at the end when she advises the wounded Mecca to breathe deeply and allow his limbs to become used to being unshackled that we come full circle back to Harriet Tubman. It's here that we see the process of inner freedom is not birthed without a certain amount of pain. But if we can simply allow our fears to wash over us like water -- they will eventually recede and we can then glimpse a new horizon of opportunity and potential. Quite a message for all of us.
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