DOWN FOR #THECOUNTWomen’s Theatre Festival: A Celebration of Women’s Voices
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
Emily Mann – “Under the Liberty Tree”
Blue McElroy – “Cardboard Box”
Kiana “Kiki” Rivera – “Puzzy”
France-Luce Benson – “The Talk”
Kat Ramsburg – “The First Step”
Gabrielle Denise Pina – “Uncommon Revelations”
Kassy Mannoua Amoi – Jed
Dan Burkarth – Dr Benjamin Rush/Bus Driver
Tiff Canady – Claire/Actor #4/Delilah
George Donaldson – Father/Nick/Mustard Green
Rhonda L. Francis – Grandma/Manu
Sha Wheaton – Susannah/Actor #3
Alicia Rodriguez – Mary
Guadalupe Reveles – Mele/Callie/Irene
Octavia Y. Thomas – Mother/Actor #2
Tony Washington – Nathaniel
Nylia and Amyia Jackson – Daughters
Camika Spencer – Director
Katelyn Kocher – Stage Manager
Scott Davis – Production Designer
Tina Washington – Costume Designer
Teresa Coleman Wash – Executive Producer
Reviewed Performance: 3/22/2019
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The show is part of an effort to get more women’s voices and experience heard in America. “The Count” is a study that “analyzes gender, race, genre and… revivals to determine which writers, over time, enter our national canon.” The study found that at present, only 28% of productions produced on American stages were written by women, and only 6% by women of color, a silencing of voices that Bishop Arts Theatre, along several other stages around the country is seeking to change. The goal is to bring that number up to 50% “the whole human chorus, not just the tenors, basses, and baritones,” and assure that “the voice of women will be heard in this land.”
The six plays at this festival are quite a mixed bag of topics, ranging from slavery to being a child of divorce, coming out as gay and exploring the sexuality of that world, redefining a mother/daughter relationship, venturing into a new city, and finding the strength to leave a marriage and support a son. The actors play multiple roles in each of the selections. All of the actors have talent, and show up fully on stage, no holds barred. It was remarkable to see them under the fine direction of Camika Spencer transform themselves into so many distinctive characters. The diversity was surprising and refreshing, and very well executed.
There are standout performances in each of these pieces. Octavia Thomas shines in both of her roles, the first as a harried, angry mother who is in the middle of a divorce who cannot understand why her child is being so stubborn. As Actor #2 in “Puzzy,” Thomas is a delight in the multiple roles she takes on within that piece. She glows on stage with a powerful lifeforce and presence. Sha Wheaton is another standout performer. Her reactive comedic work as Actor #3 in “Puzzy” had the audience in stitches, and it was through her hilarious performance of the lead’s best friend trying to understand the life Mele has chosen that we were able to relate to the subject matter. Guadalupe Reveles is the lead in “Puzzy,” and her despair at trying to simultaneously respect her grandmother, find acceptance from Jehovah, and navigate the minefield of dating off tinder was refreshing and honest. You loved her from the moment she stepped on stage in this one-act, and Reveles found many places of humor to make us laugh with her along the way. Tiff Canady played a soft-spoken woman trying to leave a marriage and support her son with great dignity in “Uncommon Revelations,” and also played a wide variety of roles in “Puzzy” beautifully. She then came back as a very different person in “The Talk” as a yogi daughter whose traditional Mom is giving her fits, but whom she still loves as they try to reach a new understanding of each other. Rhonda L. Francis as the Mother in this piece was flat-out hilarious and touching as well, using the full range of her comedic talents. She also has a superb singing voice that was on display in “Under the Liberty Trees” that set the tone beautifully for all the 6 one-acts to follow as she allowed us immediately to sink into place and time. Young Alicia Rodriguez holds up her part of “Cardboard Box” well, allowing us to experience her bewildered and plaintive pleas to be heard as a child caught in the middle of an acrimonious divorce.
Men play strong supporting characters in these one acts. Tony Washington as a young slave does a great job with his role, and the final moments of this piece as we focus on him were incredibly moving and powerful. George Donaldson as Father in “The Talk” doesn’t shy away from his role as a dad who plays the manipulation card multiple times with his daughter. Kassy Mannoua Amoj is stirring as a father imparting what may be his last words to his son, and Dan Burkath does a fine job conveying his distaste for something he is powerless to stop in “Under the Liberty Trees.”
The director Camika Spencer is a playwright herself and understands good pacing and interesting ways to convey these one-acts. Taking on six shows of such divergent nature is a big undertaking. Spencer’s staging was fluid, and each piece felt very different from the other – she honored the voice of each playwright beautifully. She also created a wonderful ensemble feel to the show. Her staging choices for “Cardboard Box” and “Puzzy” in particular were quite brilliant. At the talkback after the show, it was revealed that this was her first outing as a director – one hopes she will continue to do more of it.
Production design by Scott Davis utilizing a single background of large windows and then changing furnishing and lighting between each piece worked very well. Costumes by Tina Washington were also good – they conveyed time and place and were good for the fast changes the actresses had as they whirled from one part to the next.
There were some issues of not being able to hear the actors in portions of the plays as the audience was reactive and vocal to many portions, particularly in the provocative “Puzzy.” The lights could have been crisper with regards to blackouts – the audience was eager to applaud the cast after each one-act, but we were often confused as to whether each one was over or not. “The First Step” suffered from this in particular on the night reviewed. It is so much shorter than all the rest of the offerings that we didn’t know it was over, which led to an awkward silence. Kudos to all the performers, playwrights and production crew for creating an excellent evening of theatre, one that well-served its mission to bring women’s voices and passions onto the stage and into our hearts and souls.
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
215 S. Tyler St. Dallas TX 75208