On Friday evening, I went to the opening night of “Seed” by Radha Blank, which is playing at the National Black Theatre, and I experienced a dramatic play that had funny moments, but was mainly raw and moving. I then attended the opening weekend of “River Crosses Rivers II: A Festival of Short Plays by Women of Color,” and that was outstanding. The Ensemble Studio Theatre presents this festival at its location on West 52nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, continuing its mission of discovering new voices.
When I attended the short play festival, I got to see nine 10-minute plays by women of color. These plays feature accomplished actors and seasoned directors.
The festival starts off with “One for the Brothers, A Love Story,” by Pearl Cleage, with direction by Woodie King Jr. Now, don’t let the title fool you. This play is not about brothers who all love each other-it shares the story of four brothers and we see how, when one of the brothers goes in a different, negative direction, his other brothers turn their backs on him. The talented cast included Morocco Omari, Denise Burse and Reggie Burch, who actually portrays three of the four brothers.
The second play, “Skin” by Naveen Bahar Choudhury, with direction by Jamie Richards, demonstrates how important it is that we don’t judge people solely by what we see on the outside, whether that be their appearance or a negative attitude. The two actors involved in this piece, Vandit Bhat and Nitya Vidyasagar, gave captivating performances.
The third play, “Modern Romance” by Bridgete Wimberly, with direction by Chuck Patterson, is absolutely delightful and takes a twist you simply won’t expect. With that I will say no more about it, except that Trish McCall is hilarious, Harvey Gardner Moore is amusing and Chike Johnson is entertaining. This story is a romantic comedy that you will quickly fall in love with, demonstrating the imagination of Wimberly.
The fourth play, “One Quarter” by Christine Jean Chambers, is anything but a laughing matter. It is a deep, touching story that looks at the issue of how far a Black woman will go to be accepted by white people. It also shows how giving and caring a Black man can be for a Black woman. Sound a little confusing? Go and experience it for yourself. At the end of the 10 minutes, you will take a deep breath and find yourself just saying, “Wow, that was something else.” Amelia Workman and William Jackson Harper give very focused and impressive performances in this thought-provoking play.
The fifth play, “Post Black,” is written by actress and playwright Regina Taylor. It stars the phenomenal talent of Carmen De Lavallade as she plays Pearl, a Black woman with a radio program. Pearl is 110 years old and has seen it all in terms of the changes that Blacks have gone through in this society. She is a woman with a fighting spirit, and that spirit is tested when she is confronted by a group of youths at the airport. The group consists of white and Black youth and the white youth are disrespecting the Black youth. In reaction, the Black youth are laughing with them.
Before Pearl knows it, she is confronting the entire group-and the results of that confrontation are disturbing, demonstrating how times have changed for Black people, especially when it comes to the behavior of our youth. They don’t understand the sacrifices that were made for them in order to be treated with respect.
The sixth play, “The Settlement” by Philana Omorotionmwan, with direction by A. Dean Irby, is one of the most amusing and modern day takes on the reparations debate. It is definitely written with a lot of humor, determination and passion. The cast of Marie Thomas, Teresa Stephenson and Denny Dale Bess is fantastic.
The seventh play, “Learning to Swim” by France-Luce Benson, is directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke and is very touching as it looks at a family in crisis. A dad with cancer, who decides to stop his treatment; a wife who is dealing with her dying husband; and a daughter who holds in her emotions like her father and her husband who seems supportive but has his own issues. This play makes one realize the complexity that can be involved in human relationships, whether they are between a husband and wife or a parent and child. The cast was magnificent and consisted of Ashley Bryant, Lincoln Brown, Stephanie Berry and Paulo Quiros.
The eighth play, “Comida De Puta…” by Desi Moreno-Penson, with direction by Jose Zayas and Erin Adams, is a disturbing story about how far a young girl will go to marry for financial security and how that plan can easily backfire. The storyline has twists that will have you reeling. It is performed by a wonderful cast that includes Maggie Bofill, Susanna Guzman, Gilbert Cruz and Ismael Cruz Cordova.
The ninth play, “Waking Up” by Cori Thomas, with direction by Tea Alagic, is a heart-wrenching story that juxtapose the lives of two women-white and Black-who see and feel a lump in their breasts. The white woman is rich and successful; the Black woman is from a poor African village, married and the mother of three. Each woman describes what happens to them, and though their experiences are completely different in the end, they have the commonality of their terrible tragedy and what it brings. The actresses who will captivate your attention are Lynnette Freeman and Amy Staats.
River Crosses Rivers II will only play through Oct. 2, so make plans to see it very soon. For more information, go to ensemblestudiotheatre.org. The festival is the creation of its co-artistic directors, Van Dyke and Richards.