Going to the River’s presentation of “The River Crosses Rivers II” was expansive! Running from Sept. 14 through Oct. 2, the celebrated festival of short plays brazenly crossed borders, staging an interesting array of new work by nine female playwrights of color whose voices resonated clearly and distinctively from the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) at 401 W. 52nd St. in New York City.
However, it did not stop there! This festival of short plays continued translucently across several expansive bodies of water to introduce unique new voices articulating stories from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean region. Each of the outstanding, well-developed pieces was engagingly written, imaginatively directed and brilliantly acted. This served to build a viable cultural bridge to engage the diverse, multicultural theatergoers in the capacity-filled EST venue as they experienced a variety of enriching and exciting crossings.
Fittingly housed at EST, where William Carden is artistic director and Paul Alexander Slee is executive director, “The River Crosses Rivers” is in keeping with the mission of this viable not-for-profit organization, which has been “discovering new voices since 1968.” Through its unique collaborative process, EST “develops and produces original, provocative and authentic new plays and engages and challenges our audience and audiences across the country.”
This challenge continues to be met annually through the EST/Going to the River program of short plays, thanks to its two dynamic co-artistic directors, Elizabeth Van Dyke and Jamie Richards. This year’s “The River Crosses Rivers II” was no exception. It featured the imaginative, thought-provoking, cutting-edge work of France Luce-Benson, Christine Jean Chambers, Naveen Bahar Choudhury, Pearl Cleage, Desi Moreno-Penson, Philana Omorotionmwan, Regina Taylor, Cori Thomas and Bridgette Wimberly.
These nine playwrights gave birth to a myriad of timely and interesting themes, including love wrapped in African-American brotherhood and nationalism in “One for the Brothers: A Love Story” by Cleage, directed by Woodie King Jr. with actors Reggie Burch, Denise Burse and Morocco Omari; Bengali-American romance in “Skin” by Choudhury, directed by Jamie Richards with actors Vandit Bhatt and Nitya Vidyasagar; romance, African-American novella style in “Modern Romance” by Wimberly, directed by Chuck Patterson with actors Chike Johnson, Trish McCall and Harvey Gardner Moore; love, friendship and race in “One Quarter” by Chambers, directed by Talvin Wilks with actors William Jackson Harper and Amelia Workman; and Black America past and present in “Post Black” written and directed by Taylor with Carmen de Lavallade, Ruby Dee and Micki Grant alternating in the role.
Following an intermission, the second half of the evening continued with the issues of reparations for Blacks in America in “The Settlement” by Omorotionmwan, directed by Dean Irby with actors Denny Dale Bess, Teresa Stephenson and Marie Thomas; the death of a parent and rites of passage in “Learning to Swim” by Benson, directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke with actors Stephanie Berry, Lincoln Brown, Ashley Bryant and Paulo Quiros; love and magical realism Latino-style in “Comida De Puta” by Moreno-Penson, directed by Jose Zayas with actors Maggie Bofill, Gilbert Cruz, Ismael Cruz Cordova and Susanna Guzman; and women with cancer in America and Africa in “Waking Up” by Thomas; directed by Tea Alagic with actors Lynette Freeman and Amy Staats.
All of the short plays were captivating. However, “Waking Up” was phenomenal. In 10 minutes we were completely pulled into and caught up in the lives of two women-one from America, the other from Africa-who learn that they have cancer. The similarities and differences that they each face are poignantly captured in Thomas’ writing and equally as powerfully portrayed by Freeman and Staats.
“Waking Up” is a play that speaks to today and would make a wonderful command performance at the United Nations to commemorate the great legacy of the late Kenyan environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai, 2004 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who died of cancer last month. I strongly suggest that EST/Going to the River approach the United Nations (Casting Pearls has the contact) for a performance during Women’s History Month. It would make a great fundraiser for the National Cancer Association.
Another piece that continued to linger long after it ended was Taylor’s “Post Black.” In addition to the timely story, the audience got the chance to see three of the greatest living actresses-de Lavallade, Dee and Grant-alternately portray the role of Pearl, whose voice speaks to generations past, present and future.
Pearl’s story is the history of Black people and our struggle to ensure that present and future generations will not be called derogatory, inhumane names-not only by other races but within the Black race as well. Yes! We honor this eternally significant message, a testimonial that rang out loud and clear as the audience joined the character Pearl in singing the Black National Anthem. We also acknowledge and pay tribute to the artistic genius of the matriarchs of stage, our national treasures, de Lavallade, Dee and Grant. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
And with the close of the curtain, Casting Pearls is honored to present Casting Pearls Awards to the cast, playwrights and producing institutions of “The River Crosses Rivers II.” Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! And cheers to Pat Golden for her superb casting! Bravo!
The Casting Pearls series pays tribute to the great talents of stage and film and presenting institutions.