By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Six smart, sassy playlets under the collective title Black Women: State of the Union — Taking Flight accomplish more or less what the front line of theater is supposed to accomplish: spin our heads and our hearts in directions not widely imagined — at least not widely imagined by white guys like me.
If men and women are going to understand each other across racial divides — where we link up and where we clash, what makes us laugh with or at each other, what pisses us off, endearments we share — plays like these are the foot soldiers in the battle for such comprehension. The work onstage here, presented by Katselas Theatre Company at Los Feliz's Skylight Theatre, is charming, funny and sufficiently impassioned as to make a strong stand in that battle.
Not that the plays' themes, circling around what black women are thinking and fearing and the stereotypes they're confronting, haven't been covered in, say, George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum and Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. But to hear them from a new generation of black women makes a difference. And that difference lies in the rawness of their passion and indignation, the subtle distinction between a life reflected on and a life being lived.
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Almost without exception, the authors are asking "Who are we?" before projecting their ensuing reactions through the prism of race. Refreshingly, the playwrights mostly avoid the tropes of identity politics. Anger is filtered through poetry, satire and, at times, broad sketch comedy. At about 20 minutes each, the playlets have neither the obligation nor the compunction to slide along plotlines like railroad tracks en route to some carefully crafted dramatic climax, where somebody's making a life-or-death choice concerning where the train is heading.
Rather, these are miniatures with words, asking us to imagine the bigger picture from the smaller one.
The embodiment of that notion is found in Penelope Lowder's 15 Minutes (handily directed by Kila Kitu), a speed-dating sketch between a young black woman (the gorgeous Lony'e Perrine) and a black man (Hari Williams, alternating with Austen Jaye). The well-coiffed pair has 15 minutes in a restaurant booth to see if sparks can fly. They do, but not the right kind. This is because, at the outset, he explains with meager chivalry coated with embarrassment that there must have been some mistake, because he's just not into black women. He has no problem with Asians, Latinas and blondes. He's an open-minded guy, you see.
She bolts, leaving him alone and ashamed, until she returns chirpily a few seconds later, having asked the manager to turn down the background music. Now: What was that he said?
And so he gets a second chance to expand on who he is, aside from being an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and what he wants. Black women are always so angry, he explains, so militant and aggrieved. They make him feel small. They remind him he's black.
She diagnoses his self-loathing in a flash and attaches it to his inclination to scapegoat black women — the larger point being that he actually understands her. He also starts to admire her. She's a movie actress, and he recognizes her from a recent film. Just as he starts to warm to her, time is running short.
"I thought you weren't into black women," she chides him.
He answers with the most backhanded compliment heard on a local stage this season: "You're different." She looks at him aghast, before he just makes it worse: "You're not like them."
A black woman who's not like black women. Thanks.
It takes just about 15 minutes for the play to paint its portrait of a gender divide: a tender, wry gulf of incomprehension that resolves itself in the painful ambiguity of two people who have every reason to dance, engaging in a series of sidesteps until their brief time expires. It's a life sliver, and an allegory.
Kitu plays a couple of matrons with a charismatic richness: In Kellie Dantzler's Evolutionary (directed by Ayana Cahrr) she's a former civil rights activist who's now gasping her last breaths of life, accompanied on her deathbed by her daughter (Perrine). Mother accomplished a lot, Daughter insists. She changed things. But Mother feels the regret of taking life too seriously, and she will not take her death with that same stoicism. She infuriates Daughter by cracking jokes, by faking her death then bursting back to life like a Jack-in-the-box exploding in mirth. She presents Daughter with a "sacred" gift, presented with the solemnity of passing some torch of legacy. It's a joke gift that pisses off Daughter even more.
All of which raises the question of what life is for, brought into stark relief by the question of what death is for. Mother recalls the image of her idol, a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting on a park bench roaring with laughter. She can't recall him ever looking so human and humane.
Kitu also plays a matron in the evening's most somber etude, Lisa B. Thompson's I Don't Want to Be (also directed by Cahrr), a choral poem that's part Maya Angelou, part The Trojan Women. She portrays an archetypal mother draped in a knitted shawl with photos of slain black men pinned to it.