City Paper is not for tourists
Writer Jimi Izrael, deconstructing the chorus of scorn that greeted Tyler Perry’s film For Colored Girls, took issue recently with the idea that the otherwise populist Perry had dreamed too big when he tackled such a high-toned project. “Art is never ‘too ambitious,’” Izrael wrote. “Most often, it’s not ambitious enough.” That’s where I’m going to come down, I think, on every tongue confess, an admirably ambitious if not entirely admirable Arena Stage commission that’s striking both for the risks it takes and for the marks it misses. A Greeks-inspired, August Wilson-channeling, pulpit-inflected gospel blues of a drama about Alabama church burnings—never mind one starring Phylicia Rashad, who’s aging pretty wonderfully into matriarch parts like the one she’s playing the hell out of here—ought to invite hosannas, after all, but Kenny Leon’s flatfooted production isn’t nearly as impressive as the marvelous new theater that it’s christening. And perhaps overwhelmed by the process of readying that gorgeous new space (not to mention the splendid spaceship of a building that contains it), the artistic authorities at Arena have allowed Marcus Gardley what feels like a little too much room to indulge what is undeniably a talent for phrase-turning; there’s a line, if not always a bright one, at which language plays stumble from the ardent into the merely aubergine, and the riffs upon riffs upon riffs in every tongue confess drift across that demarcation a little too often. Pace Mr. Edison, discipline is as key to genius as inspiration and perspiration, and it’s what seems lacking here. Which isn’t to say there aren’t flashes of genius. More than a few, really: Some passages positively shimmer. (“The sky over yonder is breathless blue and clear as tear water,” goes the beginning of one of those ultimately overlyrical call-and-response exchanges.) There’s a hilarious prayer (I know, right?) at the top of Act 2, when Rashad’s town-mystic character bids farewell to her teenage son (Jason Dirden), who’s heard the call of Nashville in the voice of an itinerant bluesman (Jonathan Peck). There are rich things embedded in the script—stage directions as urgently poetic as the best of the dialogue; a poplar tree, specified as a stage-design element, to evoke the dying fall of “Strange Fruit”—that deserve the exploration and the celebration a better-pruned second production will give them. And those ambitions, to get back to something that’s too important to leave in another writer’s mouth, certainly are spectacular. Gardley is the kind of playwright Molly Smith and Arena Stage built their new Kogod Cradle for: young, gifted, and brave. There aren’t many people with the passion to make plays as big and complex as every tongue confess; it lives in the vast and terrifying territories roamed in this era by Wilson and Tony Kushner and Sarah Ruhl and Naomi Wallace. Heady company, that. A guy—and a theater—aiming to expand the pantheon? If nothing else, they’ve got my respect.