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.
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.
She's encircled by an ensemble of female mourners (Michelle Flowers, Perrine, Lee Sherman and Tamika Simpkins) who recite the imagined anguish of black mothers who lost their sons to the ravages of bigotry and/or police violence: from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo to Trayvon Martin.
Penelope Lowder's The Follicle Prison War unfolds in a hair salon during civil unrest in L.A. — circumstances that restrict the time during which movie star Dawn Fantasta (Lee Sherman) can purchase hair extensions that do what ethnically black hair doesn't: flow to one side or another when one tosses one's head. The store's Mephistophelian proprietor, Melanie Hawker (Kitu), also is trying to fob skin-whitening cream onto poor, war-torn Dawn. The war actually is being fought in Dawn's soul between urges to be black and urges to boost her career by being "racially ambiguous."
The former urge is reinforced by a trio of black-identity-goading Goddesses (Flowers, Perrine and Simpkins). The production's delight, in Cahrr's staging, is seeing Sherman's Dawn so comedically, emotionally and physically wrenched between the nobility of being black and the temptation of washing that black right out of her skin. Her eyes follow that little jar of skin whitener, like manna from heaven, while the rest of her body tears against it in the cartoon tug and pull of a woman versus herself.
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The bill also includes Sigrid Gilmer's Black Simulacra, a very funny parody of black "types" found in movies, and Tanya Alexander-Henderson's poetical-meditative Ritual.
Despite living in one of the most multicultural cities in the nation, we remain woefully segregated, and that segregation was evident in the theater, where I was one of the few white people in attendance. Equally woeful is how our misunderstanding of each other comes from prepackaged media images.
The beauty of this effort is how it comes at you without packaging. In poetry and sketch comedy, it serves up the raw anxieties and psyches of lives being lived. And that's terribly important to see and to feel in a living space like the theater, if we want to know anything at all about our city and the people who occupy it.
BLACK WOMEN: STATE OF THE UNION — TAKING FLIGHT | Plays by Sigrid Gilmer, Lisa B. Thompson, Kellie Dantzler, Tanya Alexander-Henderson and Penelope Lowder | Presented by Katselas Theatre Company and BWSOTU at Skylight Theatre, 1816 Vermont Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 18 | (702) 582-8587 | ktctickets.com