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Theatre in Review: Amani (National Black Theatre/Rattlestick Theater)

Denise Manning, Mars Rucker, Eden Marryshow. Photo: Marcus Middleton

Amani covers roughly two decades in the title character's life and it's telling that, whether seen as grade schooler or a young adult, she seems virtually the same. Playwright a. k. payne's fey, fantastical approach to this tale of trauma and healing leaves her central character oddly stranded at center stage. The play is a thing of many parts -- filled with allusions to Black poets, jazz artists, and Afrofuturism; elaborate metaphors; and ghostly visitations -- staged in bravura fashion and featuring plenty of inventive design touches. What it doesn't have it is a plausible Amani.

To be clear, there is a character onstage with that name, who exists at the center of a whirlwind of events. Following a brief prologue, we see her at age nine, visiting her father, Smith, in jail. (She lives with her grandmother; only much later do we learn about the horrific events that resulted in the death of her mother, Dasia, and Smith's subsequent imprisonment.) The encounter between father and daughter, separated by a glass wall, and speaking into telephones, is poignantly rendered. As she notes, "Take-your-father-to-school day was stupid" -- especially when you don't have a father to take to school.

After Smith's release, he works in his backyard, building a rocket that, he says, will take him and Amani to the moon. (He is, apparently, inspired by the famed jazz composer Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, who claimed to have traveled to Saturn and back.) It's a quixotic project, to be sur, an expression of his deep desire to keep Amani safe from the terrible things that can befall a young Black woman, including, "every motherfucker/who would dare to cross the path/to speak wrong to you/from the cops who stand/at the corner of Charlegmane/from the work/that might take your body/from the fire/that's coming/and the water/that's coming/from the thought/that you are not enough."

So obsessed is Smith with this project that he neglects everything else, leading to a foreclosure on their home. Oddly, as Amani ages into adolescence, she never questions the plausibility of lunar travel, even when dating a budding young astrophysicist who thinks the whole thing is crazy. Is she humoring her dad? Or is she a true believer? It's hard to say. Boys, by the way, become a bone of contention between father and daughter, but his controlling ways don't spare her from a parade of bad boyfriends. The latter are showcased in an amusingly staged sequence that amounts to a compendium of the lies, evasions, and clich├ęs that men tell the women they pretend to love.

Smith exerts enormous influence over Amani until the action shifts gears, focusing instead on Dasia, who appears from beyond the grave to perform a kind of ceremony on Amani that emphasizes the importance of grieving and learning to move on; it also gives Amani the strength to claim her own identity: "I will not hide my tongue," she says, "my self/from those who cannot hold it/cannot hold me."

At this point, however, we're two-thirds of the way into the play and it's not clear who Amani is at all. She remains a surprisingly childlike figure with no interests or ambitions, utterly lacking in the details that would make her come alive. Aside from her parents and those lousy would-be lovers, her only relationship is with Kofa, a childhood friend who, later, becomes her partner. Even with her, however, she mostly speaks in lofty generalities. Payne writes poetically, but not specifically; she seems to feel that Amani's status as an emblem of Black womanhood is enough to make her a compelling character. But the playwright would honor her creation more by giving her three dimensions.

Amani is staged with brio by Josiah Davis, whose design team has significantly reimagined the Rattlestick interior. Maruti Evans' set places the audience on two sides of a sunken stage, surrounded by the frame of a house filled with books, plants, cookery items, lamps, and hard hats. Marika Kent's lighting and Brittany Bland's projections fill the space with colors and images, the latter including water, greenery, circuit boards, and planets. (Kent has also built lighting into the stage deck, creating attractive sunburst effects.) Sound designer Kathy Ruvuna deftly handles the challenge of musicians tucked into each corner of the playing area; she has also provided some moodily powerful musical sequences. Mika Eubanks' costumes are imaginative throughout, especially those brightly colored astronaut jumpsuits complete with mirror ball helmets.

The production relies heavily on the charm of Denise Manning as Amani; dealing with a character so severely underwritten, she is truly attempting an intergalactic flight without a net. Eden Marryshow is touching as Smith, whose good intentions never seem to be rewarded and Mars Rucker is an imposing, radiant Dasia -- another character who exists mostly an idea rather than a person. Kai Heath has a tough assignment as Kofa, who doesn't have much to do until late in the evening, but she has a nice chemistry with Manning. Special mention goes to Omari K. Chancellor as all those untrustworthy beaux.

Davis's direction keeps the play lively throughout, but he can't disguise the fact that, by the halfway point, Amani has become something of a sermon. Payne appears to be another member of a young generation of playwrights who shy away from dramatic conflict, instead offering odes of affirmation and self-love. After the ghastly real-life incidents of the last few years -- the violence and racial hatred, and that's just for starters -- the impulse is understandable. Whether it makes for compelling theatre is another question. Payne is, I think, a gifted writer, but she might be better off as a poet or essayist. --David Barbour

(24 February 2023)

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