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Relativity | The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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As Claire, Linda Kennedy’s fragility is nicely juxtaposed by her ferocity, sometimes within the same scene.

 

By Cassandra Medley
Directed by Ron Himes
Through March 5, 2006

Sometimes growing up is the hardest thing to do. Shrugging off the familial bonds that have defined you for so long to form your own bonds with the world at large can be a daunting task, especially when you realize what the world is offering runs counter to what your family has taught. Do you choose to assert your own beliefs at the risk of hurting your relationship with your parents? Or do you stand steadfast and hold onto your own ideals? This is precisely the situation in which Kalima Davis finds herself.

Kalima (Bianca Jones) is a promising young geneticist working on the human genome project, mostly with stem cells. What has spurred her interest in this field is the fact that her parents are the founders of the Philadelphia Melanin Foundation, a movement which postulates that people with more melanin in their body’s makeup are more highly advanced than those without. While Kalima was a steadfast believer in this theory upon entering college, her years spent as an undergraduate have led her to other conclusions. She has had to hide the fact that she no longer agrees with her parents’ theories, as they do not rely on hard science. Complicating matters is the fact that her father passed away several years prior, and Kalima feels an obligatory urge to not contradict her mother’s strong beliefs, thereby not tarnishing the reputation of the Foundation and making her mother look foolish. Another thing that Kalima hides from her mother is the fact that her boyfriend Dan (Christopher Hickey), her lab partner and fellow student, is white.

Claire—Kalima’s mother, played by Linda Kennedy—is a feisty woman who has her eyes on the prize, so to speak. She carries on the Foundation with her husband’s best friend and her new love interest, Malik (J. Samuel Davis). Their goal is to prove these theories correct, regardless of how they reach the conclusions. Being the scientist that she is, Kalima has a hard time swallowing this. When Kalima is offered the part of assistant to her new professor, Iris Preston (Monica Parks), she must publicly renounce her father’s theory, thereby causing a strain on the mother-daughter relationship that, until now, has been tight.

This play was commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project as a play that focused specifically on science. It also touches on some hot-button issues, such as stem cell research and racism. While Claire and Malik would not consider themselves racists, their beliefs are frighteningly similar to arguments used by whites as to why African-Americans are supposedly inferior. This is an interesting paradox due to the fact that we generally only hear the white argument when it comes to race. Very seldom do we—as consumers of issue-oriented entertainment, and cognizant mental capacities—see that there is a theory that completely—and almost logically—flies in the face of the old racist crap. So while it’s refreshing to hear it coming from the other side, it also raises some hackles, as well. But this gets us thinking: Why do we care who is superior or who isn’t? Or if anyone is truly superior at all? In this day and age, this play begs us to look at ourselves and delve into examining the reasons that we must put one race over another.

At the end of the play, we see a very nice exchange between Kalima and Claire that is almost as heartbreaking as it is necessary. In the real world, there are no easy answers, and in this play, the final resolution does not wrap up everything into a nice, nifty little package. A play that concedes this to its audience must be good enough throughout the show as not to leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth when they leave the theater. At times, this play comes dangerously close to that unpleasant taste, but is saved by several strengths.

First and foremost would be Linda Kennedy. This multi-award winning actress has the chops to pull off her emotionally charged role like no other. Her smile and her grace will charm, even when she says outlandish things. Her fragility is nicely juxtaposed by her ferocity, sometimes within the same scene. Her mere presence on the stage is reason enough to see this play.

During the scene changes, there is a man playing an African drum that mirrors the emotions that we just saw, which then turns into emotions that will see in the next scene. Drummer Arthur Moore II sets the tone ever so nicely on his raised platform, overlooking the action down onstage. There was one scene, though, where Moore was playing during the dialogue, emulating an auditorium full of angry students and their yelling at Iris. While this was good in theory, giving the scene a little more oomph, there were times when the drumming was simply too loud and Parks could not be heard over it.

Working against the play is the timing. While the cast had a great chemistry, there were moments when the pacing just felt sluggish. Director Ron Himes could stand to have the cast pick up the pace in certain scenes, which would let the more intense and dramatic moments stand out.

Also in the minuses column is a good chunk of the dialogue. At times, some of the characters end up spouting lines that sound like things that only characters on TV, in movies, or onstage would say. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be too much creativity in scenes that would seem crucial. For example, the scene in which Kalima is exercising while speaking with her mother on the phone segues into a much-too-long monologue that takes place as Kalima shadowboxes. It’s times like this where the play becomes merely ho-hum. But, thankfully, the performances by the entire cast are able to transcend these moments and make them bearable.

Medley doesn’t fail in this script at all, however. In fact there are some very nice artistic choices made, namely when Kalima is shown speaking to her mother and Iris simultaneously, but the way its done clearly signifies that each conversation is taking place at different times. This was nicely done by playwright and actors alike.

Finally, it should be noted that the design elements of this show are fantastic. The set design by Regina Garcia was beautiful and functional, and David K. Warfel’s lights were a nice compliment to the set as well as the action.

Once again, the Black Rep has come up with a winner. And while this play may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s bound to please any lover of great professional theater.

The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Cassandra Medley’s Relativity, directed by Ron Himes, through March 5 at the Grandel Theatre (3610 Grandel Sq.; St. Louis). Performances are Thurs.–Sun. (Thurs. at 7 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. at 8 p.m.; and Sat. & Sun. at 3 p.m.). Tickets range from $17–40, and can be purchased at the box office or any MetroTix outlet (by phone at 314-534-1111 or online).
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