From MOJA to MAGA: Staging the African-American experience 

Our theater critic looks back at this year's fest

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The dynamic and expansive 2018 MOJA Festival has come and gone, but its pair of theater offerings resonates still. Together, they offered an eye-opening study in contrasts circling around the topic of being upwardly mobile and black in America. Both productions played on the Dock Street Theatre stage, bookending the festival each with four-day runs. However, each took an altogether different tack in considering African American advancement, from tender winks to tragic reckonings.

First the festival's more lighthearted front side, Art Forms & Theatre Concepts, Inc. remounted Debutante of the Season, the 1997 work that takes congenial jabs at social climbing and achievement. Written and directed by the company's founder and executive artistic director Arthur L. Gilliard, it made its debut during the arguably kinder, gentler world of the 1990s. A mix of satire and sitcom, this blithe and guileless dramedy looks at upper middle class life through the soft and loving lens of one prosperous, ambitious family.

The play centers the action around a community's premier social event, the debutante ball, and the stakes involved in reaching for the brass ring of becoming part of the festivities. It goes like so: Celestine (the terrific Teresa Smith) angles to ensure that her only daughter Ramona (played with spark and charm by Aalayah Williams) will land a coveted spot in the ball. She does so by whatever means necessary, from making the right friends to wearing the right furs. And she does so at the profound consternation of her husband Samson (the commanding Kyle Taylor), who finds himself increasingly trampled underneath her eyes-on-the-prize social climbing.

Benign and mirthful, the play ambles into family dynamics and upward mobility, ever at the ready with a punchline or comic bit. Like the winsome, earnest ingenue at the heart of the plot, its rose-colored glasses are all the more poignant in the context of our conflicted current times. Written in the slipstream of The Cosby Show, it sends up the cost of social ambition, though by its very construct merrily presumes that social ladder is well primed for the climbing.

Still, the play tickles those issues with the lightest of touches, serving up sufficient laugh lines along the way (with a call out to Toby Smith as Althea Grace for keeping them coming as Celestine's sister). True, the play could benefit with some rigorous tightening and considerable trimming of the text to move the story along, and its resolution is far from satisfying. That being said, it is encouraging to see Charleston's theater companies mount original work by way of a lively, committed cast.

On the festival's flip side was Sweat, the nationally prominent work by Lynn Nottage that offers no such anodyne solace. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner was recently called out in American Theatre magazine as the second most produced play of 2018. Probing the fallout of market forces upending workers at a Pennsylvania plant, we meet a downcast cast of characters whose ethnic backgrounds may vary, but whose in life remain the same.

Its unflinching facedown of today's socio-economic factors and racial dynamics is at once personal and global, and is as emblazoned with MAGA as that ubiquitous bright red cap. Family figures in here as well, as generations of mothers and sons, wives and husbands, friends and coworkers tow the factory line in the small town of Reading, Penn., finding comfort in the shared discomfort of aching backs, marital disappointments, and an occasional barroom birthday. Come what may, they are all in it together. That is, until they aren't.

However, the fine balance of communal oppression teeters perilously when a job opens upstairs in management. One of the cohorts, who is African American, is lifted off the line. That power shift, as well as management maneuvers that create jobs for immigrants at the expense of higher paid lifers, unloads systemic racism that results in devastating decisions for all involved.

Together, they all fall apart, a perfect proposition for PURE's ensemble cast, which works in lockstep as friends, then adversaries. To drive this notion home, there are some meditative interstitial moments during which cast members are silhouetted on a scaffold, slowing moving positions like perfunctory cogs in that grim factory line that is their conjoined lives.

As Cynthia, Joy Vandervort-Cobb delivers the relatable, powerful central role, surrounded by noteworthy performances, such as a suitably gruff, take-no-prisoners Cristy Landis as her best friend Jessie; Erin Wilson as the addled Tracey; and R.W. Smith as the long-benched worker Stan, who mans the local bar. As the younger generation, Jacob Milano, Joel Watson and David Perez rise and then achingly fall.

PURE Theatre, which is in the midst of moving into its new home at the Cannon Arts Center, (though the official opening date is still to be determined) has made no explicit announcement about continuing the run of the show in the space. However, it is likely that Charleston audiences will at sometime in the not-too-distant future find this on their schedule, and will gain much from considering this story if only for a more intimate understanding of the daily news cycle.

Whether homegrown and happy — or imported and otherwise — MOJA this year set the stage for terrific, timely exchange on the African American experience and beyond. I look forward to seeing how that exchange continues through new works and new productions in the months and festivals to come.


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