In Critiques For The Culture’s first contribution to GayRVA, Taneasha White and Brooke Taylor begin their representation-focused coverage of Richmond-area theatre with a review of all four plays included in TheatreLAB’s recent Women’s Theatre Festival.
Critiques for The Culture is a conversational podcast and radio show (on WRIR and WRWK) that focuses on the socio-political themes found within current movies, TV, and plays — covering all with humor. Hosted by two Black Queer folks of varying opinion, Critiques for The Culture aims to dissect our media, point out where we aren’t represented, and say what the rest of us are thinking. Taneasha and Brooke make up the CFC duo — a couple of Black Queer folks who love their community, and love watching TV and movies.
Critiques for The Culture is committed to uplifting the voice of the marginalized. We aim to discuss representation (or lack thereof) within present media, and invite you all to be a part of the conversation. Our critiques revolve around TV shows, movies and documentaries. In order to engage the local community, we have decided to venture beyond the airwaves and begin covering local plays for GayRVA.
This past month, four local theatres formed a collaboration for Womxn’s history month. Weinstein JCC, 5th Wall Theatre, TheatreLab, and Heritage Theatre all showcased one-act plays of varying theme, all written and directed by womxn, and all housed at TheatreLab.
Two of the four plays were written, directed, and performed by womxn of color, and all were from varied perspectives. In one, a current actress told the story of how she came to be in her current position. Another was told by a womxn who was enslaved. Another was from the perspective of a previous Israeli Prime minister, and the last came from a single mother getting back into the dating circuit.
In addition to each play’s focus on womxn, there was also the non-existent fourth wall — all of the actresses spoke directly to the audience, providing their thoughts and their own narration of the plot. All except for Bad Dates seemed to ignore the traditional rules of creating a plotline, undercutting the standard expectation of rising action, climax, and resolution in a linear timeline.
Our Critiques for The Culture rating system is based on two categories: representation of marginalized folks, showcased with our Black fists; and our overall rating of the quality of the play, independent of the representation that may or may not be there; this rating is represented with stars.
Charlayne Woodard’s play about her life started right before her birth, highlighting her parents’ relationship. This play was well constructed and utilized its sole prop of a chair extremely creatively, setting up multiple scenes. Lead actress Haliya Roberts gave a near-perfect performance as she switched seamlessly between characters, giving each one their own little something that distinguished them from the others.
Pretty Fire tells a familiar story of a Black girl and her family that live in the North, but have roots in the South. This coming-of-age story clearly depicts the realization that racism has no preference for above or below the Mason Dixon Line. Strong themes of the impact of family dynamics, religion, and rape culture guide this play from start to finish.
Pretty Fire did a great job highlighting some of the fundamental challenges with being Black in America. As a child, Charlayne learns about the presence of what W.E.B. DuBois termed the Double Consciousness (known in the modern era as Code Switching), and how critical it is to survival. She also contends with being born female in a world that preys on femininity. 4.5 Black Fists.
Overall, this play had a captivating story, smooth transitions, and a terrific leading actress. Four Stars.
As far as representation, Pretty Fire highlights the complexities of living life in America as a Black woman, from dealing with the sordid history of the US and all that it encompasses, to the added layer of having grown up during Jim Crow without understanding the impact. The writing, direction, and acting all did a great job of showing the differing perspectives of Black folks, and how geographic location and age play a role.
It could have been stronger if there had been more dissection of the problematic themes that came up, particularly with Charlayne and her younger sister’s desire for whiteness. Four Black Fists.
Overall, the show did a great job keeping your attention. Realizing that a show only has one person throughout can bring skepticism, but Roberts held the audience’s attention the entire time. She portrayed more than five different characters of varying age and gender, and all were clearly defined through voice and body language. Four Stars.
This play had an interesting, but seemingly disjointed, plotline. Was the main character truly experiencing these complicated interactions, or was she a compulsive liar? Hard to tell. A blatant showcase of white privilege marked the end of the show, as even though she had been stealing funds from the restaurant, she was spared criminal charges.
This storyline was not catered towards Black or queer folks. Black and POC folks were simply not included — and that may be for the best, when one considers the role of queer characters in this play. The character had a particularly homophobic moment when stating emphatically that her date was gay simply because of the way he dressed and carried himself. The lone Black Fist is given for the fact that this was a female-led play that highlighted the (ever so deluded) realities of a woman in America. One Black Fist.
The theater space was convincingly transformed into a cozy bedroom, and the audience felt like a trusted friend that the main character confided in throughout the play. The lighting and audio was carried off without a hitch and definitely added a touch of sophistication. The main character seemed to connect well with her audience and drew laughs easily all night. While this play lacked a solid plot development, the experience was an enjoyable one. Two Stars.
The main character is a white woman, and while the plight of a single mother is real, I am tired of plotlines meant to garner sympathy from the public being focused on people of privilege. The only Queer representation we have is that of her brother, about whom she speaks fondly, and that of a supposed gay man that she is set up with. Sure, we have all potentially met folks whose sexual orientation we assumed. In reality, however, none of us can honestly know if the person has not told us. Additionally, her reasoning was based solely on his usage of language and the fact that he was well-groomed — homophobic stereotypes. One Black Fist.
The actress did a good job of playing a believable character, as there were no unbelievable character arcs. I wasn’t sure why the main character’s shoe obsession was important, other than to potentially exemplify the expendable money she had, to set up her role in the money laundering. I appreciate the showcasing of the main character trying on different outfits, questioning both the audience and her daughter on their choices. Most of us can identify with testing out multiple outfits before a big interview or a date, maybe sending photos to friends for feedback.
The plot, however, had a sharp turn at the end that made the show feel highly disjointed. The love life of the character was at the forefront, with her career as a connecting link, but at the very end, the play shifted to legal trouble that ended up being swept under the rug by her newfound love interest. 2.5 Stars.
Message From A Slave
Message From a Slave was reminiscent of what would happen if Tyler Perry decided to do a stage version of 12 Years a Slave, but with no plot direction. It was a two-act play, but the separate acts had essentially no connection, aside from the character being present in both.
The first half takes us along a young woman’s journey as she is taken from her village in Africa, in chains, to America, and in great detail, showcases her struggles. The second half of the play showed the daughter that she had given birth to several decades later. This character transitioned from chair positioned stage right to center stage, and relayed a full-blown sermon that explained why Black folks are at fault for our own enslavement. Because our faith in God isn’t strong enough, and because we don’t pay enough attention to our husbands or our children, the Black community is failing, and it 100% our fault– and no one else’s.
It is difficult to leave me speechless but this play did, and for all the wrong reasons. If I knew no better, I would have bet my salary that a white person wrote the script. I cannot comprehend the level of self-hatred that the author of this play must hold. And yes, it was that bad. The first act of the play was simply pain-porn, at the expense of the ancestors of those in the African Diaspora. The sounds of whipping and the vivid details of assault were triggering, to say the least.
However, the first act could have been explained as a misguided attempt to illustrate the horrors of American slavery. It was truly the second act that made this play unbearable. The actress recited a list of allegations against Black folks that was so disgusting, all I could do was seethe with anger. Message from a Slave receives the lowest possible rating from me, half of a Black Fist.
The actress herself did an excellent job bringing this horrid play to life. She should be commended on her ability to make something so bad look good. The props worked well with the content of the play. However, this was not enough to warrant a good rating. One star.
As far as representation goes, this show gets a .5 Black fist. This centered around the lives of African/African-American people, but was showcased in a way that was painful to watch. The first half of the show was a marvelous exemplification of pain-porn, leaving the viewers wondering who this 10-minute whipping-post scene was really written for. There was nothing that stood out about this particular character; it felt like we were just being taken through what happened to the enslaved post-capture, and that isn’t a lesson any of us asked to re-learn.
Aside from the second act being completely disengaged from the first, it also did the community the disservice of blaming the marginalized and oppressed for their placement within the American caste system. Instead of identifying the longstanding effect that slavery has had on our country, and how we are still operating today out of systemic oppression, this play blamed bad attitudes and the usage of microwave ovens as the reason for our hardships. This fed into essentially every stereotype that White America has created and attempted to hold the Black community to, and the fact that it was coming from a Black woman doesn’t do anything but give it validation. .5 Black Fists.
This play gets a .5 rating overall. The actress herself did a good job in the portrayal, regardless of how problematic the content was. That is the only aspect that was memorable. .5 Stars.
Golda’s Balcony was told from the perspective of Golda Meir, Israeli’s first and only woman Prime Minister. It was very reminiscent of a war movie, but from a female perspective, in a stage play. Golda’s character showcased her difficulties and her wins throughout the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Holocaust, and how her relationships were impacted.
Representation-wise, this play hit on two main things — women in leadership, and the Jewish community. Mrs. Meir seemed like a real badass and her story is inspiring on many levels. Jewish folks have a storied history, and have been the victims of terrible abuse in Europe and America. Golda’s story deserved to be told and appreciated. The play lacked representation in some key areas: POC involvement, queerness, and socio-economic diversity. 2.5 Black Fists.
As a history buff, I really enjoy documentaries, and this play fits the bill. I learned a great deal of information and left feeling very enlightened about the state of Israel during the timeline of the play. There were an abundance of props placed into the small stage space, and it provided a homey atmosphere for the audience. Golda’s Balcony was very informative but, at times, not as engaging as I expect from a stage play. Three Stars.
When it comes to representation, I can give this play two solid stars. I appreciated the focus on the Jewish community, but would have liked more detail into how the Holocaust affected her and her family directly. A woman prime minister still isn’t extremely common, and Meir was the fourth in the entire world, and the first in Israel, so there is a lot of power in lifting up that story. Two Black Fists.
Overall, Golda’s Balcony receives three stars from me. I think that if you aren’t interested in war-focused movies, than this would not hold your interest. The actress did a great job inserting humor, and she was very believable and likable as a main character. All other characters proved to be auxiliary, and lacked the depth that we saw in some of the other plays. However, it was a solid show overall. Three Stars.
All in all, we had a good time watching the shows put on by these four different theatres, and spending time in TheatreLAB is always a highlight of the week. We encourage you all to join them during the rest of their season — they have some great shows lined up!
We talk about movies and TV on WRIR 97.3 every Friday at 10am, and WRWK (The Work FM) 93.9 FM every Friday at 7pm.