“It’s strange being an adult in the house you grew up in. [..] [Your parents] always see you as a child.”
– dialogue from this play, Harrison David Rivers
As I finish writing these words, the world is still reacting Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, which aired this past Sunday. I haven’t seen it, but the reaction to Markle’s stories about her brief tenure as duchess has led to much commentary about institutional sexism and the (lack of modern) relevance of a monarchy. What’s more, it’s once again put focus on the fine line Black folks (Black women in particular) must walk when in a white world.
It is a situation to which Jesse Howard (H. Adam Harris) could no doubt relate. In fact, his is a circumstance to which I can personally relate: that of being a (near-)40-year-old Black American forced by economics and a global pandemic to stay his parents, for whom his life as a playwright makes little sense. The openly gay man was in the middle of having his condo redone when the pandemic broke out, forcing him to save money by staying with his Trump-loving parents in Kansas. (As a Black playwright whose mother was born and raised Junction City, that is also something to which I can relate.)
As we “meet” Jesse, he’s speaking into a childhood tape recorder he found in his old room. His rambling is very stream-of-conscious, but it helps him maintain his sanity in a world turned upside-down. This new audio journal allows him to marvel at the sound of crickets (“That’s the sound of Kansas at night.”) to escaping the MAGA-laden rants of his father (“He’s being treated the same way they’ve treated Black men for years!”) to longing for the company of his partner who’s all the way in Italy.
So, from late-August onward, Jesse unloads his thought about life, love, and the country that killed George Floyd to the only person he knows will listen. In-story, it’s the recorder; outside the story, it’s we listeners.
Yes, I said “listeners”. Much like the ACT’s recent pandemic-era reformat of their annual Christmas show, New Conservatory have produced an audio play with some visual accompaniment. As shown in the trailer below, the NCTC employed a more animated collection of visuals – close-ups of a tape recorder, a shot of stars, election footage, etc. – than the ACT’s partly-animated illustrations. We never see “Jesse” (save for the occasional close-up of his eye), so it’s easier to visualize the things he’s recalling through his rapid-fire recounts of his memory. I was tempted to play the link I was given again to see if it works entirely as an audio play.
It certainly works in terms of verisimilitude – I believed that the fictional Jesse (Harris, as directed by local talent ShawnJ West, with whom I’ve worked before) was recounting real memories of his election disbelief, his George Floyd-based anger, and his therapy-based frustration in recalling his time with a partner who passed away. The problem, as odd as it may seem, is that it doesn’t know when to pull back on that realism. What I’m saying is that it makes the frequent solo show mistake of running off on tangents that pull focus away from the narrative. The opening scene actually has Jesse acknowledging that he’s rambling on and on.
The trick of solo shows is that not only must the stories be irresistible, but the storytelling and storyteller must be nothing short of enthralling. Harris and West pull off the latter element admirably; playwright Harrison David Rivers stumbles a bit with the former.
Still, the play – which runs just over an hour – is the beneficiary of a serendipitous time to premiere. Though the Meghan Markle interview rightfully puts the focus on how easily Black women are dismissed, it still helps shine a greater focus on how Black people of all gender identities often keep our pain silent so as to navigate a white world that literally believes we feel no pain. For all of its rambling flaws, Rivers’ script does well to capture the anguish of that frustration and the joy of finding any outlet through which we can vent it.
It’s easy to recommend for Harris’ performance under West’s direction, but the real success will be in answering the frustrations mentioned with more than boilerplate platitudes.
Interlude is scheduled to stream until the 24th of March on the New Conservatory Theatre website.
The show runs roughly 1 hour and 6 minutes with no intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.