Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival Starts by Tackling Race and Gender Identity

Denim's Eric Schulman and Taylor HawthorneEXPAND
Denim's Eric Schulman and Taylor Hawthorne
Photo by Shon Fuller

Son of Semele kicks off its 2015 Company Creation Festival of works by Los Angeles–based, devised-theater companies with two productions that explore outsider voices and delve into issues of difference and identity.

With The Life of the Night, the Others Theater Company premieres its smart concision of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ 1936 experimental comic novel about heartbreak in the gay demimonde of Paris’ Left Bank between the wars.

The narrative charts a rocky lesbian love triangle among protagonist Nora Flood (an ardent Jessica DeBruin); her seductively androgynous, philandering, lover Robin Vote (Madison Shepard); and ruthlessly possessive café singer Jenny Petherbridge (Amanda Newman). The anguish of the characters’ frustrated desire is universal, and audiences will feel the mordant romantic fatalism embedded in the heightened poetry of dialogue that directly equates love with death.

Kate Motzenbacker’s brisk direction nicely grounds Barnes’ sometimes abstruse, philosophical musings in stage imagery that illuminates the constantly shifting power dynamics of the trio. Christopher Aguilar delivers an unforgettable performance as transsexual doctor Matthew O’Connor, the piece’s sardonic narrator and Nora’s emotionally scarred friend-confessor.

Jessica DeBruin and Madison Shepard in The Life of the NightEXPAND
Jessica DeBruin and Madison Shepard in The Life of the Night
Photo by Stevie Rae Dominguez

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Falling on the well-made-play end of the devised spectrum, Denim is playwright Julie Taiwo Oni’s politically thoughtful if somewhat schematic one-act reflection on racism and its reification by the advertising industry during the rise of globalization during the 1990s.

Presented by MaiM Theatre Company, the two-character drama is set in Bakersfield two years into Nelson Mandela’s national reconciliation government. As Levi Strauss begins to shift its manufacturing abroad to take advantage of lower labor costs, the play imagines a photo shoot for an ad campaign designed to portray the Levi’s factory in Cape Town as a corporate commitment to uplift poor South African blacks, who ironically won’t be able to afford the jeans that they make.

To that end, heartthrob American TV star Tom Anderson (Eric Schulman) is paired with the young black South African Sammie (Taylor Hawthorne) in a sort of variation on the controversial, 1985 Michael Halsband boxing photo of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The appealing Hawthorne is a revelation as a combative and politically sophisticated teenager who forces the somewhat thick-headed Tom to confront his unexamined white entitlement and liberal complacency. But even director Terence Colby Clemons’ fluid and sure-handed staging can’t finally compensate for Denim’s dramatic contrivances and hollow emotional center.

Note: The festival also includes other shows that have not yet premiered. Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through Jan. 25. sonofsemele.org.


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