The familiar announcements—“Turn off cellphones”; “Unwrap candy”—have all been made, along with one that is less familiar—“One of the toilets is backed up; don’t use it”—when a figure zips across the H Street Playhouse stage and down an aisle into the lobby. Then the figure sweeps back in.
“You’re late,” says the clipboard- and plunger-toting Bess.
“Oh, but my nails are divine,” replies Tess.
That exchange tells you much of what you need to know about Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ protagonists in A Monday Night With Bess and Tess, an ambitious but ultimately slight comedy about the friendship of two African-American actors and the apparent last hurrah of the community theater they co-founded.
Last harrumph, really: Tess (Jewell Robinson) is the troupe’s self-aggrandizing queen bee, Bess (Bev Cosham) its put-upon worker drone, and though their relationship is close, pressures have clearly been building for some time. Bess is tired of picking up after her partner and wants to quit; Tess has intermittent bouts of depression and has largely lost the will to act. Oddly, each seems to believe that what the other really needs as therapy is to do an evening of one-act plays.
So they’ve come to their theater to run through four scripts, each dealing with sisterly conflict in a different dramatic style. One is ersatz Oscar Wilde. Another has the hectoring cadences of civil-rights agitprop. The third is quasi-Shakespearean, and the fourth is what might be called minimalist moderne. Jennings proves an accomplished mimic, and her playlets all have the rhythms of the styles they’re affecting. (A sample ersatz Wilde-ism: “I’m not very handsome.” “Well then, how considerate of you to be veiled.”)
The playwright has also contrived to tie the content of the playlets-within-a-play to the folks charged with acting them. The respective scripts concern sisters (to use the term broadly)—who are strangers, who are on different planets politically, who are hellbent on sororicide, and who finally learn to forgive each other’s trespasses. Jennings has Bess and Tess travel much that same arc in their own relationship, through connective dialogue that links the playlets. And as if that weren’t a sufficient number of daunting tasks, she sets the one-acts’ characters to discussing whether blacks are “depraved, Godless criminals,” even as Bess and Tess are commenting on casting that marginalizes minority performers. The aim appears to be to employ theater as therapy for the body politic, not just for the actors involved.
In the exquisite 1998 comedy Playing Juliet, Casting Othello, which followed a youthful theater company as it plunged into the thickets of nontraditional casting, the same combination of author and director—Jennings and African Continuum Theatre Company’s Jennifer L. Nelson—took a narrower approach and struck pay dirt. Here, in what is pretty clearly still a work-in-progress, their aim feels scattershot, and the result is understandably more diffuse. All of the playlets are too long, partly because they’re trying to do too many things at once. And if the therapeutic value of one-act plays is territory heretofore unexplored and consequently inviting as subject matter, in A Monday Night With Bess and Tess, it doesn’t always amount to much more than a facilitating device.
It does, however, enable Nelson to give her performers a serious workout. ACTCo’s designers have done a bang-up job of remaking H Street’s modernist black-box auditorium into a proscenium-arched community theater with red velvet curtains. Robinson and Cosham inhabit it as if they’ve been toiling there for years. Robinson gets the broader assignment as self-dramatizing Tess, embracing the brittleness of the frivolous Wilde-esque comedy then flattening her delivery in the civil-rights drama to depict a ferociously misguided Southerner who’s opposed to black suffrage.
Cosham, meanwhile, spends much of the evening reminding the audience that she long ago perfected the art of the comic throwaway. If her Bess appears to be disowning a line, either by muttering it or by inflecting it with such nonchalance that no sane person would pay attention, you can be reasonably confident that it expresses her innermost thoughts. Here, Cosham’s throwing a lot away—maybe too much—but then, the playwright has given her character a lot of innermost thoughts.
A barefoot, shirtless black teenager is caught in a hard-edged spotlight as the darkness lifts in the opening seconds of ¡Candombe! Tango Negro. He’s moving to an insistent drumbeat that seems to be pulling him in tight circular patterns. Everything about the moment feels African—the rhythms, the steps, the boy himself—which is remarkable because, when the moment is repeated fewer than 15 minutes later, there’s no question the lad is Latino. The rhythms and steps are the same, but by that time, they’ve been firmly linked to candombe, a musical style born in the Uruguayan slums.
The journey from the Congo to the conga line is pretty much the sum and substance of Gala Hispanic Theatre’s colorfully diverting revue. Conceived and directed by Gala Artistic Director Hugo Medrano, it features a splendid trio of young Uruguayan drummers known collectively as Los Blum Ya and vocalist Waldemar “Cachila” Silva, whose aching tenor animates a number of the evening’s songs.
There is a script, which charts the rising and falling fortunes of a tenement house in Montevideo populated mostly by poor black families. Though the building was demolished in 1978, its address (1080 Cuaréim Street) lives on in the name of Silva’s musical group, “C” 1080. The decidedly nonessential storyline is in verse—in Spanish onstage and in translation on headset—and alternates between mild comic interludes about landlords (“Oh sir, if you only knew/I ain’t got a dime/And my rent’s four months overdue”) and explanatory info about the music itself (“The tango beat is connected/To the style of Andalusia”).
It’s adequate, I suppose, but not one syllable of it seems remotely important once Vicky Leyva, a vocal seductress in beaded cornrows, starts crooning a candombe-inflected tango. The show could use a few more quiet moments: Medrano’s staging follows up-tempo drumming with up-tempo dances, and after a while they all blend together. Still, there’s no denying the energy of the cast members—or the infectiousness of the rhythms that move them.CP