The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Belated Black History Month Double-Feature: ‘The Last Sermon of Sister Imani’ by TheatreF1rst and ‘Her Portmanteau’ at ACT

COMPOSITE - The Last Sermon of Sister Imani by TheatreF1rst AND Her Portmanteau at ACT

I blame myself, really. I’ve spent both the last month of 2018 and the first two months of 2019 intensifying my job search (which, I’m pleased to say, has yielded some positive results), so The Thinking Man’s Idiot has fallen a bit by the wayside. I finally posted my Xmas movie reviews a few weeks ago, my 2018 Year in Review shortly after, and I’ve spent the last week-or-so putting up reviews for the first few theatre shows I’ve seen in 2019 – some of which are no longer playing. With all of these things piling on top of one another, it figures that I’d be late on my write-up of the two Black shows I saw during Black History Month.

Still, given the aforementioned positive job developments, I believe I can finally begin updating more frequently. Hell, I’m sure some smart-ass is gonna make a joke on how “appropriate” it is that my Black History Month-themed piece showed up on a CP Time schedule. Nevertheless, I feel more than just an urge to write up the two shows below, I feel an obligation. I’m a Black theatre artist myself, so I feel the need to shine a light on the work of our people when the opportunity presents itself. That does not mean that I’ll only praise the Black shows I see (and y’all niggas have made it clear y’all think I’m a hater for that), but rather that I’ll show how diverse their opinions and creators are.

If my reviews of Black art come off as – for lack of a better term – more direct than my reviews of non-Black work, it’s because I’m likely having a more visceral reaction to the work than I would otherwise. I see myself in the characters I watch, and that feeling is only exacerbated with the characters share my skin tone. “Representation Matters” isn’t just some trendy hashtag, it’s a fact backed up by proven and scrutinized science. I may have a stronger reaction to a Black story because I expect White people to fuck up our stories, but I expect more from us when we finally get the chance to speak on our own terms. I’m like Issa Rae: “I’m rooting for everyone Black.” So, when y’all let me down, it hurts. When y’all succeed, I jump for joy.

And given how rare it is for me to see two Black-themed Bay Area shows so close together, I love giving them each the chance show what they’ve got. So, without any further ado, here are the two Black shows I caught during the shortest month of the year.

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“If I was the president, then I would state facts/
You leave it up to me, I paint the White House black/
It ain’t no future in your frontin’”
– MC Breed, “Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin’” (1991)

If you’ve listened to modern rap, you’ve most likely heard the triplet flow in action. It’s a flow used by MCs like Future, The Migos, and Young Thug, but is abhorred by old-schoolers like Snoop Dogg… which I find hypocritical, given how I remember Snoop Dogg’s flow being criticized as “lazy” (and that was the nicest thing they said about it). Rapper TI (younger than Snoop, but older than the current generation) had a rather mature take on the disparity when he asked, “[D]id you understand everything ODB was saying? Did you understand everything Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was saying? Did your momma and daddy understand everything James Brown was saying? Your momma and daddy didn’t understand what James Brown was saying. They just liked it.”

I bring this up because the anachronistic Hip-Hop of The Last Sermon of Sister Imani kept me from fully enjoying the show. As written by Cleavon Smith, the play is about former rapper Adrien (Jasmine Williams) hanging up her mic to take a shot at Capital Hill. She seems to be polling well, but she’d like the support of cult leader (“spiritualist leader” just isn’t an apt description) and former partner-in-rhyme Danielle, aka Sister Imani (Dezi Solèy). Imani agrees to meet and speak with Adrien, a meeting that forces the two to confront old issues that have yet to be resolved.

The Last Sermon of Sister Imani world premiere by TheatreF1rst - set

Set by Jon Tracy. Photo by Me.

I don’t know Cleavon Smith’s background, but I’m willing to bet good money that it isn’t in the music industry. If it is, then he hasn’t been in touch for 20+ years. During the course of the play, you realize that the story is meant to take place in the lead up to, and aftermath of, the 2016 Presidential Election. That surprised the hell outta me, ‘cause this play’s image of Hip-Hop is straight out of a time between Krush Groove and House Party. Everything about the rapping in this show – the beats, the lyrics, the flows – all come off like the work of someone who’s only knowledge is from film and tv. Even the record deal offer our two MCs get is just the old “He gave me his card after the show” cliché. That trope was flimsy decades ago and it’s pure fiction now. (Don’t believe me? Search through Thizzler on the Roof sometime.)

It’s not that a “positive” MC is unable to thrive in the modern scene – just look at Kendrick, Cole, or Gambino – but the version shown here is from a time when those acts looked like Monie Love, Boogie Down Productions, and X-Clan; a time of bright colors, leather African medallions, and kufis. This play isn’t about the modern scene, no matter how hard it tries to convince us otherwise.

And it’s a shame, because there was plenty of contemporary material from which to draw – both with the music and the characters. Hell, the idea of a rapper-turned-politician being haunted by their old lyrics was an actual news story I followed last year. Orangie taking office has driven a lot of us to a blind rage we can only hope to express through art. And the suggestion that working within the system is akin to contributing to our own oppression is an argument that will never go away (especially for Black people) because it’s a question that has yet to be answered. Smith’s script is full of great ideas, but it lacks a strong narrative focus and shows an out-of-date version of the artform it admires.

On the plus side, its technical work is impressive. Of the few TheatreF1rst shows I’ve seen (Waafrika 123 and The People’s History of Next), the former pissed me off due to how very close it came to greatness, but the latter was actually one of the best shows I saw in 2018. And that was due to their respective scripts; the behind-the-scenes work has been some of the best done on the Live Oak stage. Sister Imani is no exception.

 

Under the direction of the SF Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan, the actors are at least able to find the heart of their characters’ non-rapping scenes when the rapping ones feel out of whack (no pun intended). Having worked with Jasmine Williams before, including having directed her once, I’m not surprised to see her vivacious work put to good use again – including in another T1 show. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Dezi Solèy before, but her easy-going demeanor works as a fine contrast to Williams’ energy. Her slow evolution from youthful optimism to heartbreak to adult condescension is clear when given the whole story. Nice work from both of them.

And both Sullivan and his crew seem to revel in contrasting the two actors and characters. Regina Evans dresses Williams in conservative darks and heels, with Solèy in bright layers and boots as Sullivan’s staging keeps the two frequently on opposite sides of the stage. Given that said stage, designed by Jon Tracy, suggests a box in which the two are both trapped, when and where Sullivan has them approach speaks volumes. Stephanie Johnson’s lights and Kevin Myrick’s sounds further add to the sense of atmosphere.

Ultimately, The Last Sermon of Sister Imani feels like a play Cleavon Smith wanted to write a long time ago, but was only able to do so now. Sullivan stages it well with his cast and crew, but I think another rewrite would serve it well – perhaps setting it in the early-90s? I can see this scenario (especially the fate of Danielle’s brother) happening during the backdrop of the Rodney King riots and George HW Bush entrapping a Black man for selling drugs. But the current version is not a play for the era of Black Lives Matter and Dylann Storm Roof.

And that’s a shame – we really need that kind of work right now.

GRADE:                                                        B-

The Last Sermon of Sister Imani ran from the 14th of February – 3rd of March at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley.
The show ran roughly 100 minutes with no intermission.
For information about the show, please visit the production’s official site here.

portmanteau_720x295

“Nobody is born wise.”
– African proverb

Given how much I spoke about Hip-Hop in the above review, it figures that I’d be thinking of a Hip-Hop-related quote right now. I seem to recall the liner notes of Ice Cube’s album The Predator, in which he says that there are “two Ice Cubs: one African, one American”. I can’t remember the rest, but that one line has stuck with me all these years later. For Black folks, it seems we always have to choose, don’t we? Hell, the central conflict in Black Panther was about the distance – physical and mental – between Black Africans and Black Americans. Slavery drove a wedge between us that has never really been repaired.

Mfonsio Udofia has a story to tell about being both African and American simultaneously. It’s a story so wide in its reach that this year will see its chapters told on two different stages. Knowing nothing of the other chapters, I caught the section currently playing on the ACT’s Strand stage. In a way, it’s a classic story: mothers and daughters; culture shock; family ties through blood and spirit; and the struggle between tradition and convenience.

But just because a story treads familiar ground doesn’t mean it’s any less worth telling.

 

Her Portmanteau is the story of Nigerian-born Iniabasi, who has come to New York to visit her mother, Abasiama, and American half-sister, Adiaha. Not only does Inia have a hard time adjusting to the American customs of her sister, but she’s never forgiven her mother for choosing the “better opportunities” of the US over her first child. Further compounding matters, Abasiama’s mentally ill husband doesn’t want Iniabasi there, and Iniabasi misses her own child back in Nigeria.

Udofia’s play is a story of buried secrets and boiling tensions that suddenly rush to the surface in sudden bursts of emotions. In a way, that gives it a lot in common with the previous play above. It’s also an imperfect piece, but the latter does better with its real-time narrative that eschews flashbacks. But I think the script stumbles in how the characters and their relationships are revealed. Mind you, I’m glad that there aren’t many big exposition dumps or unrealistic explanations of things characters already know, but it still took me longer-than-I’d-care-to-admit to figure out that the two young women were sisters, and Abasiama mother to them both. I also thought the finale went on a bit too long and tried too hard for a resolution.

Still, the humanities of the characters and the handling of the cultural differences was well done. In a nearly-two-hour show, it’s great that we’re able to spend that time actually wanting to get to know these characters more and find ourselves curious as to how their story will progress. Perhaps the somewhat “quick” ending is the result of Udofia wanting each chapter of her story to be longer, but knowing she’d have to made edits. The good news is that she mostly succeeds.

 

As is typical of ACT, the production values are befitting those of the Bay Area’s premiere theatre company. Kimberley Scott should be familiar to film fans as a character actor over the past 30 years, particularly in the films of Joel Schumacher. She plays here the sort of role she doesn’t often get in film, and it suits her well. Her solo scene, in which she rifle’s through Inia’s suitcase, could have gone very wrong. Fortunately, Scott takes the scene to the appropriate edge without going over. Eunice Woods is also great as the fish-out-of-water Inia, frequently hiding her emotions behind her own cultural norms and abrasive demeanor. Aneisa Hicks doesn’t seem as comfortable in the role of Adiaha. She isn’t bad, she just doesn’t seem to find the right tone for the character (though I did get a kick out of the way she finally snaps back at Inia’s criticisms).

David Reynoso’s set is a wonderful bait-and-switch piece, starting off as the three JFK airport payphones against an all-black backdrop before sliding back the wall to reveal Adiaha’s detailed apartment. Said apartment is full of modern accoutrements and the infamous paintings criticized by Inia, all the work of prop designer Jacquelyn Scott. I can’t recall any particular moment when Jake Rodriguez’s sounds stood out (although the airport sounds at the beginning were well done), but if I say nothing else about the finale, I’ll say that Yael Lubetzky’s lights were perfectly employed in their subtlety.

Her Portmanteau is a reminder that the United States is itself a story written by immigrants. No matter how much of the Old World you bring with you, it will never be enough for those left behind. The women of this play willingly leave behind their own children with the hopes of establishing a better life for them, but fate had other plans. Though the script is a bit rough around the edges, it’s an okay example of how this kind of story doesn’t start or end with A View from the Bridge.

GRADE:                                                        B

Her Portmanteau is scheduled to run until the 31st of March at the ACT’s Strand Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

3 comments on “Belated Black History Month Double-Feature: ‘The Last Sermon of Sister Imani’ by TheatreF1rst and ‘Her Portmanteau’ at ACT

  1. Pingback: Off the Rim: ‘The Great Leap’ at the ACT – The Thinking Man's Idiot

  2. Pingback: Haunted Hearth: ‘In Old Age’ World Premiere at The Magic – The Thinking Man's Idiot

  3. Pingback: Loud & Proud Latinx Double-Feature: ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ World Premiere at Berkeley Rep AND ‘Oedipus El Rey’ Revival at The Magic – The Thinking Man's Idiot

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