As soon as the performers, Jeffery Freelon Jr. and Tiffany Oglesby, had left the stage, the space was taken over by an earnest young white man with a neatly cut beard.
“Thank you all so much for attending this evening’s production of The Light, by Loy Webb,” he beamed, as the audience began subtly pulling on their coats. “If you have the time to stay, we will be holding a talkback here in the theatre, following the performance. The New Colony is a non-profit company, and we raise much of our revenue from donations…”
The sales pitch continued. Gwen looked over at Eleanor, raising a hand to indicate interest. Do you want to stay?
Eleanor’s hands shuffled to indicate back to Gwen. If you want to.
Gwen put down her coat again, which provided the answer for all three.
A few minutes passed – the energetic man finished his pitch, inviting some recognition applause, and the audience members with places to go filed out of the theatre. It gave Gwen more time to appreciate the wonderfully immersive design for the show. Performances in the Den Theatre’s blackboxes always made excellent use of the space, but rarely had she seen a set that so enveloped the audience. From the original artwork from designer John Wilson on the walls, to the use of the building’s real windows, the spacious Hyde Park apartment set was, perhaps, a touch larger than one would expect in reality. But this was hardly a matter to skewer the show over.
“How much do you think people are bidding for the painting?” Eleanor asked. She pointed to the canvas of Nina Simone, distinct against the red background, that hung behind the stage left wing of the audience. A note in the program mentioned it was being auctioned off to benefit The New Colony.
Eleanor answered herself. “A few hundred, maybe? Art is expensive.”
“Not to mention it’s for charity,” Gwen added.
Eleanor nodded. In front of them, a woman with a ponytail was setting up a folding chair in the middle of the space. She brushed a strand of hair back, and addressed the remaining crowd – about half of the full house from before.
“Hello, everyone!” she chimed, inciting a chorus of shushing. “My name is Melissa, I’m a member of The New Colony’s ensemble. Well, I think we should begin by taking a collective breath together.”
Melissa led the assembled crowd in an inhale and exhale. From the back row, someone coughed.
“Right, so I want to get some initial reactions from you, if you had to describe the play,” she continued. “Any words that come to mind?”
There was a pregnant pause.
“Powerful,” came a voice.
“Powerful, very good.”
“Honest,” said Eleanor.
Melissa seemed to be prepared for this word. “Honest, certainly. Any others?”
“Heartbreaking.” A smattering of approving hums followed this word.
“All right,” Melissa glanced at the room. “What are some moments in the play that stood out to you?”
A white woman in the front row, sitting by her husband, raised a hand.
“Well, I was very moved by the play,” the woman began. “Just an excellent performance by those two wonderful actors.” A few audience members clapped. “It did a fine job of tackling a problem that…I think we all have to deal with, but it’s hard to articulate sometimes?”
Melissa nodded, awaiting an additional sentence.
“It’s very fair,” she continued. “You don’t get the sense that these two people are being unfair to each other, but you understand why they think the other is being unreasonable. That feels accurate, how we can’t talk to each other.”
A pair of women in their twenties snapped several times in approval.
“Thank you for that,” Melissa said. “We’re very proud of what Loy has brought to the table for us. This debate, around how men and women treat each other – specifically black men and women, Loy was very committed to writing a play that depicted an African American couple who were truly in love ––”
“And she did an excellent job of it.” An older black woman, flanked by her friends, added the comment.
Melissa smiled. “It’s a debate that often feels like you need to pick a side, that there’s a lot of blame going back and forth, and not a lot of real discussion between the participants. What I personally love about the play is how, even though neither character is seeing eye-to-eye, you can tell they are very, very close to doing so.”
The pair snapped again as Melissa continued. “But it’s that small difference that ends up derailing the conversation.”
She glanced around the room again. In the pause, Gwen tried to sum up her thoughts on the play – but more importantly, she tried to weigh the necessity of her opinion, being a Caucasian woman, on the matter.
“Yes,” Melissa said, indicating an older white woman at the back of the house.
“I find it interesting that you said the writer wanted to write a play specifically about black romance,” she began. “Because what I saw tonight…”
Gwen and Eleanor simultaneously braced themselves.
“…was such a lovely romance between these two characters, I think she really nailed it. And in addition to that, I feel like their discussion about this sexual assault culture and the #MeToo movement – it’s for all of us.”
Eleanor glanced towards the legs of Melissa’s chair.
“It manages to be very specifically ‘black,’ and also have a universal message we can all learn from.” Her body language indicated that she was done speaking.
Melissa moved right along. “You had a hand up?”
It was a friend of the woman who had interjected earlier. Her hair was pulled into twists above her head.
“Yeah, so first of all…” Her hands were out, cradling the air. “Wow.”
Appreciative laughter floated from the crowd.
“I thought it was wonderful,” she continued. “I did wonder – if you know…”
“Shoot,” Melissa said.
“Do you know if it was the director or the writer who added the final moment of the play?”
Gwen hummed. She had considered the same thing – the play’s final image served as a cathartic release of the tension that had been growing over the last seventy minutes, an ending that left her feeling both relieved and somewhat cheated. Then again, she had resolved herself – when the play had teased the release of tension about 50 minutes in, she had hoped desperately, then, that it would.
Melissa tried her best to answer the question in a roundabout way, speaking to the close relationship between the director and writer, how they had developed the production in communication with each other. “This is certainly not the final version of the play,” Melissa added. “Loy will continue to tweak the work after this production.”
Eleanor’s hand shot up, catching Melissa’s eye.
“Do you know what’s next for the play?” Eleanor asked.
“We do not,” Melissa said. “It may be presented at another company, or Loy may choose to publish it. But we will keep our audiences up to date on it.”
“Definitely do,” said the woman who asked the first question.
Another hand was raised near the back of the house. “Yes?” Melissa said, looking up.
“You know, I just wanted to respond to the people who talked about the play being ‘fair,'” the man began. “Because it’s strange…”
Here he broke off, and a single laugh escaped him.
“The whole way through, I’m watching, and thinking, you know, both of these people be acting wrong. The man isn’t listening, and the woman generalizing. But at the end…”
Again, he paused. Eleanor felt the same tension in her jaw when the woman asked about black romance.
“…I suppose I want to ask if you know whose side the writer is on,” he concluded.
Melissa made it through only a moment’s hesitation before catching sight of one of the young snapping women raising a hand, and passed the conversation on to her.
“Well, what I like the most about the play,” she began, twisting around to look at the man, “is that there are some elements included that make you side with the guy. I mean, it’d be pretty easy to make the play just, ‘men are awful, they aren’t woke’ – and I mean…yes.”
A few hums of approval followed this, but not from the man.
“But that said,” she continued. “There are little details. The fact that he has been wrongly accused of assault. His love for his daughter. The woman’s own hangups about not calling out her students when they praise Floyd Mayweather. I think whatever the playwright sides with, there’s an attempt to be less one-sided in this argument.”
“But I mean,” the man continued, Melissa remaining silent. “The ending still happens, there’s a person who wins the argument. I’m just wondering how fair we can really call it.”
There was one hum of approval at this, but Gwen couldn’t trace from where.
“Well, maybe if they’d both listen to each other, this wouldn’t happen,” said the first woman again. “Transparency is the most important element of marriage.”
After her friend clapped, Melissa smiled thinly. “Well, I think that’s a good place to leave it off.” A rustle of coats began. “If you have other thoughts, I will remain up here, or you can contact The New Colony with your thoughts. Use the hashtag #lightreview in your posts so we’re sure to see it.”
– – – – –
Back at the apartment, Dania was reading when Eleanor and Gwen came in.
“Hey, how was the show?” Dania asked, looking up from her book.
“Good, good,” said Eleanor, with little attachment to the words. She wandered off into her room.
“I bet it was probably amazing, with the press it’s getting,” Dania added as Gwen sat on the couch. Her head fell back into the cloth of the backboard, her eyes focused on some middle distance beyond the ceiling.
“It is,” Gwen said.
Dania shifted in the chair. “I know, I just wasn’t up for yet another relationship drama where people yell at each other for an hour. But I know it’s probably really good. Very important.”
Gwen glanced down at Dania.
“Just go see the damn play.”
Image Credit: Evan Hanover