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Theatre in Review: sandblasted (Vineyard Theatre/WP Theater)

Marinda Anderson, Brittany Bellizeare. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The stage at the Vineyard Theatre is covered with sand. Sounds of surf and seagulls fill the air. At stage center are two large striped umbrellas. It's a striking tableau by set designer Matt Saunders, complete with fluffy clouds floating overhead. Then a limb pops out and the umbrellas are whisked away to reveal Brittany Bellizeare and Marinda Anderson buried up to their waists; for a second, it's as if the central image of Beckett's Happy Days has been doubled, offering two Winnies for the price of one. Clearly, for these unhappy ladies, sandblasted is no day at the beach.

And indeed, they face an existential dilemma that Beckett might recognize: As they stand up, Anderson's arm falls off. It's a shocking moment, but not entirely an unexpected one. In Charly Evon Simpson's play, Black women have begun falling apart -- emotionally, to be sure, but also literally, with random body parts dropping away. It's a bizarre expression of the stress of living in the world right now, thanks to racial inequities, pandemics, and whatnot; we are told that this syndrome is both "a metaphor" and "magical realism." Then again, someone notes, maybe it is "just realism/just this is how it is right now-ism/how it feels-ism." Whether you think the shedding of arms, ears, etc. is comically pertinent or thuddingly literal-minded may determine how you feel about sandblasted.

Bellizeare and Anderson's characters, named Angela and Odessa, are in desperate search of a cure. They turn to Adah, a self-help guru known for her best-seller, Girl, Stop Falling Apart! Adah doesn't suffer from the general malady described above, thanks to a combination of age, worldly wisdom, and true grit; she doesn't really know how to help Angela and Odessa, although she'll try anything.

Adah is played by the television personality Rolonda Watts, who casts a long shadow on this production. She has a helping hand from Simpson, who gives her a show-stopping monologue offering a grittily amusing consideration of what it takes to survive in tough times. Changing costumes, she sassily lets us know that the condition of her breasts (fake or real?) is none of our business. She is a mistress of inverting cliches: "Age ain't nothing but a number/My mama would say/And I know she said it/Because she was old/And felt young/But when I started saying it/It was because I was young/and felt old." Commenting on her celebrity status, she says, "Some nights I think I'm the epitome/of Black girl magic/And other nights I think/I'm just another version of a magical negro/And I wonder what it would be like just live between the two." Watts endows these and other thoughts with such hard-won perception that she is a pleasure to have around.

But sandblasted is really about Angela and Odessa, and neither they nor their problems are as compelling as Simpson seems to think. Odessa, by the way, is named after the town in Texas, not the seaside city in Ukraine. This cues a passage that begins with her saying, "I'd like to go to Ukraine/And be like/What up bitches/And see what they'd do with me/See how they'd feel about me sharing a name with their precious place." This was received nervously and in silence several nights ago; I'll bet it's playing much worse now.

Undoubtedly, Simpson is good at distilling the anxiety of this topsy-turvy moment. "I don't know/I don't know what we are fighting/Or/Rather I don't know which of the many possible fights we're in the middle of/Is the fight we should be fighting to heal," Angela muses. Odessa, getting a little more specific, expresses her deep anxiety over a "Black woman forced off [the] sidewalk because others somehow can't see she is there/Or another black woman dies in childbirth/Or [a] Black woman asks for time off to grieve, told to push through." She also notes the absurdity of restoring her arm with some tape: "And no one thinks this is strange," an apt comment on our way of applying band-aids to terrible systemic social problems.

But, in many ways, sandblasted is less about the tragedies of the last two years and more about the drama of trying to process them. In that sense, it is a young person's cri de coeur: How can the world be so difficult? How can things have gone so wrong? Fair enough, but having wittily established her characters' fears and priorities, Simpson simply keeps repeating them, a methodology that becomes tedious. Rather than making anything happen, the playwright dallies with tropes; much time is spent contemplating a fulgurite, described by Angela as "like a tree branch/Made from sand and lightning/a sensitive branch/Kinda." This interesting scientific phenomenon is given an inordinate amount of attention by a playwright determined to infuse it with more meaning than it can bear.

Summer L. Williams' direction can't solve the problem of the script's diminishing returns, but she does fine by a cast endowed with solid comic timing. Bellizeare gives Angela a terrier-like tenacity that makes her likable. Anderson makes the most of Odessa's natural entitlement. ("We're doing names?" she asks, suspiciously, when Angela first strikes up a conversation.) Andy Lucien is solid as Angela's brother, who accidentally brings her and Odessa together. Other pleasant features include the pastel tones of Stacey Derosier's lighting, Montana Levi Blanco's costumes (especially Adah's glittery ensembles), and the evocative sound design of Sadah Espii Proctor.

But even with a running time of just over ninety minutes, the action -- or, rather, the lack of it -- drags noticeably. Whether one views it as a trek without a destination or an exercise in venting, sandblasted ends up overstaying its welcome. The writing is often graceful, but its dramatic structure is notably wobbly, almost nonexistent; in fact, you could say this sometimes-pertinent play is built on a foundation of sand. --David Barbour


(28 February 2022)

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