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Theatre in Review: Awake (The Barrow Group)

Photo: Edward T. Morris

If you've been alive and awake the last couple of years, you may have noticed a certain fractiousness seeping into American culture, having to do with race, class, and anything else you can think of. Even without mentioning the name of a certain inhabitant of Pennsylvania Avenue, the examples are many and varied. Think of last weekend's DC dustup featuring those Catholic schoolboys from Kentucky, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and the lone Native American drummer -- an event that has been spun, analyzed, and litigated from every possible angle, to a mind-numbing degree. (Nick Sandmann, the young fellow at the center of the incident, is now showing up on the Today Show, having been coached by a PR firm with ties to Mitch McConnell. In the future, I fear we will all have press reps. Maybe we'll all need them.)

K. Lorrel Manning has taken note of this national epidemic of tribalism, distilling it into a collection of nine one-act plays. It's a smorgasbord of cluelessness, insensitivity, casual racism, and outrage wielded like a club, and it's fresh enough to feel like it was written only a few hours ago. Some pieces rehearse familiar arguments: In The "N" Connection, Melanie, a black woman, overhears her white boyfriend, Matt, talking to his uncle, who uses the N word without a second thought. Called out, Matt offers a battery of lame defenses; among other things, he feels Melanie's black friends are mean about white people. (This romance is not long for this world.) Similarly, in The Date, Susan, who works for a not-for-profit, meets her newish beau, Martin, a Wall Street trader, for dinner. She makes the mistake of complaining about a black coworker's job performance -- all she means is that the poor woman is overwhelmed -- unleashing a litany of racist assertions from him. (Which statement is more offensive: "I swear, affirmative action has been one of the biggest travesties of this country" or "You're adorable; you really have no idea how this world really works, do you?" You decide.) Even if these pieces sometimes feel like exercises in shooting fish in a barrel, the punchy writing keeps them lively.

Other pieces have more original slants. In Saving Souls, Bertina, a Latina mother whose son is a scholarship student at a private school, takes a parent-teacher meeting that becomes an exercise in intimidation. (There's a slight error here; the script says the boy attends a charter school, which make no sense such institutions are tuition-free; Manning should make a tiny amendment to the text.) Bertina's son, an overachiever, has presented a class report on Hitler that, in its detail and nonjudgmental tone, has upset other students and their parents. As Mrs. West, the teacher, puts it, the school "tries to promote diversity and tolerance among its students. Any signs of intolerance, prejudice, or hate speech, are absolutely unacceptable." And to force an apology, she isn't above quietly threatening to revoke the boy's financial aid. In The Interview, a prominent black clergyman (also a newly elected city councilman) is approached in a café by a black college student whose fawning manner gives way to a grilling about the church's position on the LGBTQ community. Before it is over, it becomes a shakedown of sorts. Some pieces reach beyond race to touch on the free-floating resentment that seems to permeate American life: For example, A & J Rule the Universe features a couple of aggrieved teenage boys driving, with sinister intent, to their high school. This piece is especially chilling in its understatement.

Most of these situations could be further developed into longer plays, but, taken together, they offer a wide-angle view of life in these disunited states; they also argue, persuasively, that it may be time for all of us to step back and take a breath. Manning, who also directed, has gotten excellent work from the 15-strong company. Particularly enjoyable are Michael Giese and Madeleine Mfuru, lost in a thicket of teachable moments in The "N" Connection, and Anna Russell and Garen McRoberts, navigating the escalating hostilities of The Date. (Mfuru has a priceless cameo in The Date, as a waitress who enjoys her customers' bad behavior.) Three solo pieces also offer standout performances. In Carlos, the Protector, Jose Eduardo Ramos finds remarkable depths in a tough cop who is demonized following his disastrous intervention in an abusive domestic situation. In Flowers, Sandra Parris is priceless as a black woman who joins an all-white women's film-discussion group -- a decision that, ultimately, gets her arrested and assigned to an anger-management group. ("I'm the only woman of color in the entire room," she recalls. "And they all basically trip over themselves to greet me...just smiling and smiling. I'd never seen so many white teeth in my life.") Nandita Chandra provides a welcome ray of hope in Hands, as a New Jersey store owner and community leader -- an immigrant from the Middle East -- who turns around her troubled relationship with the neighborhood kids and makes a positive difference in their lives.

Manning has gotten a sensible and effective design package form his creative team. Chika Shimizu's set, a pile of furniture on a raised deck, provides exactly the right pieces needed for each scene. Daisy Long's lighting, Everett Clark's costumes, and Matt Otto's sound -- which includes broadcasts from a radio station presenting a program titled The Gripe Hour -- are all apt contributions.

As a kind of Diagnostic Manual of Social Ills, Awake has only one cure to offer: We need to listen to each other much more carefully. Well, it would certainly be a start. If you see it, I'm betting that you'll think twice next you open your mouth to opine about others. -- David Barbour

(24 January 2019)

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