Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Babes in Ho-lland
And so it is for Kat (Ciera Eis), her roommate Ciara (Sundiata Ayinde), who live in Holland Hall (nicknamed Ho-lland by students), and the somewhat more worldly Taryn (Tierra Allen), who lives off-campus, where "it's like we're on our own for real." These three inhabit the world premiere of Babes in Ho-lland, written by Deneen Reynolds-Knott, which opened this past weekend in a Shotgun Players production.
Kat is a wanna-be "riot grrl": she dresses with a slightly goth/emo look, and the wall behind her bed (set design by Ashley Mendez) is covered with handbills from a range of punk and hardcore bands led by women: L7, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, and Hole. Although the posters behind Ciara's bed feature Janet Jackson and TLC (as well as L7), indicating a broader taste in music, as the show opens, she dances wildly to Hole's "Violet," her long, thin braids flying as though she has transformed into a cat o' nine tails.
Kat is an upperclassman, Ciara a freshman, and Taryn a sophomore. All are facing the kinds of challenges that come with late adolescence and college life: what parties to go to, which coffeehouse has the best environment for studying, which professors are the least boring, and–most important–finding and losing first loves. For the main stakes here, at least for Kat and Ciara, are romantic. Kat's relationship with boyfriend Neal seems to be entering a rough patch, but when Ciara and Taryn first meet it's clear there is a spark between the two young women–a spark that will ignite a flame of first passion.
As Kat and Ciara navigate their relationships, Taryn is revealed to be a more complex character than simply a focus of first love. She's less than forthcoming with Kat and Ciara about many things: her living situation, her family, and especially her finances. Though she never overtly cries poor, she's always steering activities toward the more frugal option: eating at home, skipping clubs, copying chapters of textbooks instead of buying them, etc. At one point Taryn tells Kat and Ciara, "I don't think either of you know what 'broke' means."
The action takes place on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh during a long period of sunless days sometime around 1996. (We know this because a reference is made to seeing the movie From Dusk Till Dawn, they drink Zima, and the music all comes from CDs, indicating we are pre- the days of iPods and Spotify. Taryn also wears a "Protect Ya Neck" t-shirt, referencing a Wu-Tang Clan record released in 1993.)
The three performers have an easy chemistry about them. Ciera Eis does a marvelous job of acting just slightly superior to her younger friends, yet subtly displaying a lack of confidence. Eis shows us a girl on the verge of womanhood who presents a tough facade that belies a tenderness and vulnerability. Ayinde's sweet take on a Black girl of relative privilege (her mother is a successful banker), who nonetheless is well aware of the limitations her level of melanin places on her, makes her Ciara the character we root for the most. Ayinde shows tremendous skill in subtly changing her demeanor and actions depending on who she is with and the stage of their relationship. It's terrifically delicate work for so young a performer.
As Taryn, Tierra Allen is easily the equal to her scene partners, and superior to them in her physicality; her words feel like bravado, but her body language seems to indicate she always has her guard up, and is forever inspecting the walls she has built around herself to ensure no cracks are forming. Yet, when Ciara says she wants to kiss Taryn, Allen opens up in a way that is wondrous and charming. (Kudos to intimacy choreographer Maya Herdsman for creating moments that feel precisely in tune with adolescent love.)
Although Babes in Ho-lland is primarily about navigating first loves, race and class do raise their heads, but playwright Reynolds-Knott handles the issues deftly, in a way that reminds those of us who benefit from privilege that, for people of color, the specter of racism and classism is never totally out of the picture.
Babes in Ho-lland runs through February 10, 2024, at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $24-$34. For tickets and information, please visit www.shotgunplayers.org.