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Our Voices, Our Time
One-Act Play Festival

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 23, 2022

Alyssa Carter
Photo by Jonathan Slaff
Historically, the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) provided a necessary and nurturing institution for African American playwrights, performers, and directors. The plays developed by the NEC, many of which are still performed, were unflinching in their examination of inter- and intra-racial controversies affecting the larger and more local communities. The revitalized Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. has reemerged in the last few years as a training ground for up-and-coming Black artists, who are confronted with new and lingering concerns associated with race and racism in the United States. The company's current one-act play festival produced under the umbrella title Our Voices, Our Time is now playing at the Cherry Lane Studio and honors the legacies of the NEC by revealing the pressing matters that African Americans face today.

Our Voices, Our Time is a triptych of three short plays, and as is typical of an evening of one-acts, it is a mixed bag. The first, What If? by Cynthia Grace Robinson, is by far the strongest and most compelling of the evening. Directed by Daniel Carlton, the play focuses on a mother and daughter contending with a horrific instance of police brutality. Mommy (Sandra F. Williams) is a nurse in Syracuse and her daughter Kiandra (Alyssa Carter) is a student at Howard University. Separated by hundreds of miles and a snowstorm that prevents them from being together in person, the play is presented as a series of video phone conversations in which Kiandra desperately relates the events that led to the death of her friend while in police custody. Follow-up scenes show Kiandra's resolve to protest as well as her willingness to sacrifice her life in the pursuit of justice. Mommy, of course, worries about her daughter's safety, and the two argue about the most effective ways to bring about systemic change.

Williams and Carter are excellent, and the play reflects the complexity and fierce urgency of an issue still roiling the nation. The play's approach reminded me of a genre of African American plays of the early twentieth century. In works, mostly written by Black women, playwrights portrayed the atrociousness of lynching in the South. Like those plays, What If... demonstrates the power of drama to humanize national aberrations and make an emotional appeal for a topic that can sometimes be consumed within statistics, political rhetoric, and numbing repetition.

Mona R. Washington's I Don't Do That is the second play of the trio, and it is, unfortunately, the least effective. Directed by Petronia Paley, the set-up and structure are intriguing, but the one-act does not live up to its promise. Norah (Carter) and Simon (Alleyne Owen) are engaged to be married, but the cultural differences between the African American woman and Nigerian man threaten to destroy the marriage even before it starts. When Simon refuses to have sex with Norah while she is menstruating, the situation provokes a barrage of suppressed complaints due to their divergent national and class-based backgrounds.

Norah's friend Mary Catherine (Khadija Bangoura), also African American, serves as the play's metatheatrical observer and pundit who narrates the squabble as if she were a sports broadcaster. She is soon joined by Simon's friend and fellow Nigerian Ade (Bernard Scudder), and the commentators' commentating soon devolves into a parallel gender and cultural battle. The premise is tantalizing, but the point is made early on, and the prolonged and repetitive contretemps goes on far too long with frustratingly little pay-off.

The final play is Clipper Cut Nation by Cris Eli Blak and directed by Ralph McCain. Blak's script is very ambitious, tackling topics such as Black masculinity, second chances, forgiveness, and moral responsibility. The one-act is set in a barbershop owned by Moe (Benjamin Row, who is excellent), and he explains the significance of the establishment to his young employee and protégé Jackie Ruth (Abel Santiago): "You know what a barbershop is to a Black man? It's a refuge. A safe space. A home." The refuge soon becomes a venue for a confrontation between a long-time resident of the neighborhood and rising politician Prentice Leroi (Alton Ray) and a grieving father Sanford (Steven P. Jacoby). The revelations could derail Leroi's aspirations, and the characters must determine what they will do with the information, for as Jackie says, "A barbershop isn't Vegas."

At the performance of Our Voices, Our Time that I attended there were some rough patches. First, the show was delayed due to technical difficulties, and there were several awkward transitions from missed sound and lighting cues. (The production designers include Patrice Andrew Davidson and Omar Jaslin, with lighting by Melody A. Beal, sound by David D. Wright, and costumes by Rhonda Lucas.) In some cases, the performers are still finding their bearings in their roles. Still, this professional production by the Negro Ensemble, Inc. represents community theatre in its truest form. The intimate Cherry Lane Studio offers a safe space–a home–to address personal, political, and cultural subjects that directly or indirectly affect all of our communities.

Our Voices, Our Time, One-Act Play Festival
Through November 6, 2022
Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Cherry Lane Studio, 38 Commerce St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: