African American Repertory Theater
Directed by Regina Washington
Scenic Designer – Bob Lavalee
Lighting Designer – Nikki DeShea Smith
Sound Designer – Bear Hamilton
Costume Designer – Regina Washington
Property Designer – Roz Marable and Angela Washington
Graphic Designer – Steven Craig Smith
Stage Manager – Angela Washington
CAST in order of appearance:
Ebony Marshall-Oliver – Rashida Hasan
Denise Lee – Johnetta Coleman-Duncan
Allysen Elizabeth Jackson – Michaela Dawson
Eleanor T. Threatt Hardy – Morgan Jefferies-Dawson
Photo Credit: Buddy Myers
Reviewed Performance 9/13/2013
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Jonathan Norton is a local playwright with worldwide talent and appeal. A Dallas native, he attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, moved to New York to study directing at Marymount Manhattan College, was an alternate for the Yale School of Drama, twice, and is a recent graduate of SMU’s Masters of Liberal Studies program.
Norton started receiving accolades here in the early 2000’s, working with Soul Rep Theatre Company and Theresa Wash’s TeCo Theatrical Productions. His play, My Tidy List of Terrors, about the murder of black children in Atlanta, 1979-81, received a staged workshop at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference in San Marcos in 2011.
His accomplishments and honors stretch across the state and country. He’s had work developed at PlayPenn,” an artist-driven organization dedicated to improving the way in which new plays are developed”. His play, My Tidy List of Terrors, made him a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Festival, and he was also a finalist for the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Julliard. The play received a full production at South Dallas Cultural Center just last year, and yet Norton has yet to draw the attention of the larger, more established theatres in our area.
That might be about to change with the production of homeschooled at African American Repertory Theater. As a recipient of a grant from TACA’s inaugural Donna Wilhelm Family New Work’s Fund, Norton used part of the award money to fund the production of the play at AARP. More rehearsal time was added and the theatre was able to hire three Equity actresses, a feat not often accomplished by even larger theatre companies.
This is a world premiere production and not a workshop, though Norton was in on the table-work process of rehearsal. Director and Co-Founder of AARP, Regina Washington wanted to be the first theatre to birth this play and to make sure her production “can speak to the initial impulses (Norton) had in creating the play. . . . to stand on its own and be a model for how it plays out [in its future life]”.
The idea for homeschooled came from Norton’s own past when, in first grade, his teacher divided the class into two groups of white and black children. She then told them that “hundreds and hundreds of years ago, this side of the room would have owned this side of the room”. The teacher spoke of slavery, Jim Crow and Rosa Parks and Norton remembers being angry that his parents hadn’t told him about all these things yet. It always stayed with him and he later realized how much of our history is too painful to talk about.
The play concerns three women, two best friends and a teacher’s aide, who have established and placed their own children in a homeschool environment, and what happens when one of the women’s child finds out about a tragic part of African American history that isn’t in any school’s curriculum. Coming from a more open education on her ancestors’ history than Norton, Director Washington uses her own experience to delve into the levels of understanding amongst both the child and the adult women and just where the line is drawn between what is known and what is taught. The play also interjects a more radical approach to history from a younger generation as well as a religion’s traditions not widely accepted in our country’s more Christian society.
Keeping the focus on the theme of the play, the set by Bob Lavalle is in shades of beige with one predominant blue wall as background. In making a home and school room setting, pieces of one space such as a floor lamp and plants blend into the next. Beige sofa, rug and drapes denote a home while schoolbook-filled shelves, folding tables and chairs and the children’s schoolwork cubbyholes set the classroom. Prints of Frederic Douglas, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama readily classify both who and what is being taught in this particular school. The back wall cork board that holds the children’s artwork is labeled Sankofa. A quick history lesson, Sankofa is an ancient symbol appearing frequently in art (appropriate) and translates to “reach back and get it”, and is often associated with the proverb “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”, something that comes back to the characters in this play with full force. For the uninitiated such as me, a definition of Sankofa would have been good to include in the playbill.
Nikki DeShea Smith’s lighting design is about as simplistic as one can get. Overhead lighting in the yellow tones of incandescent light bulbs is predominant. Only at the beginning and end of the play did the characters turn off the overheads for a softer look. Several lamps are placed around the set but only the one on the desk is actually used and it would have added so much to the home atmosphere if the others had been illuminated. One awkward moment in lighting comes in a dramatic scene between the two best friends. Out of nowhere, the lighting begins to dim in what has been a fully-lit room. After the scene ends, the lights come back up. This is where the use of the lamps as practicals would be more realistic.
Bear Hamilton has interesting but oddly selected pre-show music, some of it reminiscent of the Sinatra-style songs of the 40’s and 50’s. It picks up a bit more as the play opens. My biggest note comes with the crying of a baby, exited off stage left, coming from the stage right speaker, and is so audibly incorrect that I actually thought a real baby was in the audience just behind me. This has been a note of mine for several of the plays at AARP and makes me wonder why they cannot separate the sound accurately.
Costumes for all four actresses are street clothing, likely coming from their own closets, except possibly for the character Rashida who is dressed in long tunic, slender pants and hijab, her head scarf. Both Roz Marable and Angela Washington fill the classroom space with books, crayons, laptop with headphones, boxes of curriculum studies and games and other items to make the space actively well utilized. If Graphic Designer Steven Craig Smith is the artist for all the artwork, they are well done and full of childlike realism.
Three of the four actresses are veterans of the stage and all are cast perfectly in their respective roles. Almost nine-year-old Allysen Elizabeth Jackson plays the homeschooled Michaela like a pro. She is energetic onstage when needed and never misses her many entrance and exit cues. She stays in the moment onstage, never once leaving the scene mentally to look out to the audience, as is so often the case with young actors, and I was particularly impressed how, in a scene’s dramatic moment, she is actually crying, and she plays her character’s emotions beautifully.
Eleanor T. Threatt Hardy plays best friend Morgan, whose daughter Michaela has been exposed to a tragic, and graphic, part of history without her mother’s permission. Morgan has been introduced to the audience via the other character’s reactions to her upcoming arrival. Her entrance physically matches our pre-conceived notions. Hardy’s stance, walk and facial expressions radiate a woman not in a particularly good mood and it gets worse from there. Some of Hardy’s dialogue is a bit stiff, as if reading from the script, but soon loosens up more naturally, and her anger towards the predicament and her concern for her daughter is realistic. The touching scene between her and her best friend Johnetta is moving and reveals the depth of their relationship and love for each other.
The character Rashida is more inward and perplexing than the “in your face” Morgan, therefore making the role more demanding for Ebony Marshall-Oliver. The younger, Muslim teacher’s aide, who causes the potentially unfortunate history lesson to take place, has definite ideas on what the children should be taught about their own history, but lacks the experience and finesse to present it to them wisely and with care. Marshall-Oliver plays Rashida with a great joy for life, showing her character’s understanding of the needs of others. I like how she kept her Rashida’s demeanor steady, even through the difficulty of the situation, and becomes the connecting pin for the threesome.
Denise Lee is a powerful actress and opens herself emotionally to present her characters as realistically as possible. This ability serves her well in playing the teacher in homeschooled. Working on inner conflicts only addressed near the end of the play, Lee allows Johnetta to slowly disintegrate onstage, physically and mentally, though I feel she sometimes holds back or cannot completely let go. The play has so many layers to it that I wonder if it hinders Lee from taking Johnetta down to the level where her character should be, considering the circumstances.
This notion takes me to the heart of the issue, the play itself. Both Norton and Washington say, and all the press coverage reiterates, that the play revolves around how one teaches about racial violence, and should young children be taught about slavery, lynching, segregation and the hatred some of our country has toward the black race. Watching the play, yes, the subjects are brought up and discussed, but they are not the core of the story. There are many secret layers that only come to the surface in spurts and uncompleted sentences between the characters. This is a ninety-minute play and not a lot happens for nearly thirty of those minutes. A brief hiding of the children’s schoolwork indicates something is wrong then nothing until Morgan arrives for the weekly curriculum meeting between the three. There is much anger, accusation and apology concerning Michaela’s picture and her knowing about such things, but it is only the catalyst for the things the women are hiding inside.
In seeing homeschooled and reading about Norton’s other plays, I note he often uses a controversial or violent subject as an “opener” to other issues. In My Tidy List of Terrors, the murder of black children is “a backdrop for the story of an affluent black family who invites their domestic and her son to live with them”. As South Dallas Cultural Center’s Manger, Vicki Meek, stated, “It’s the horrors of real life that drive his art. He delves into issues of humanity and how easily it can be compromised when fear and ignorance drive one’s actions”. That is a pretty clear description of how homeschooled is written and I cannot help but contemplate how much more powerful the play would be without diluting the original subject matter.
British playwright Mark Ravenhill recently stated that with “the economic downturns in the U.K. and the U.S . . . artists should take more changes, not fewer. After decades spent cozying up to financiers, politicians and hedge funders who might deign to donate or approve funding, now’s the time for theater companies, playwrights and actors to get wild again, to reinvigorate theater with dangerous new work”. Norton himself said, “Theatre offers you that framework in which to discuss [race]. It can be cathartic.” It is his own notion I hope Jonathan Norton will take to heart and develop plays that dig deeper, go further, and boldly say more than the glossing over of relevant issues that merely begin his past works.
Is homeschooled a play is relevance? Definitely. Is it worth seeing and taking your children to see? That depends completely on the child and whether you feel it’s the right time to learn about the other side of education. There are words used such as lynching and castration that may not be appropriate for the youngest, but the pictures are distant from the audience and the words are less graphic than most they hear every day. It is a subject in need of being breached, a story worth the telling, and a lesson well worth being taught. African American Repertory Theater produces the play openly, the actors perform their characters with depth and Norton writes about the complexity of the human condition with a natural ability that makes you want to see more.
Some of the quotations in this review are taken from interviews or features by Theater Jones. To read in their entirety, go to: