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Never in the 16 years since Lily Tomlin began The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in an umbrella hat she swore would ward off sunstroke, rain, and muggers has the KenCen played host to a more intriguingly opinionated bag lady than the one who takes the stage at the outset of Surface Transit.
As played by Sarah Jones, this seemingly toothless crone comes down the theater aisle wrapped in a blanket, clutching a pair of worn shopping bags, and chattering nonstop. She has a position on everything from cell phones (“Talkin’ in the street without no cord…y’know it ain’t natural”) to the pre-9/11, lock-up-the-homeless mayor she calls Rudy Mussolini (“Ain’t no hero to me…I may be sad, but I ain’t got amnesia”).
But the thing she’s most concerned about is not physical; it’s an emotion. “That hate,” she says—with a knowing look at an audience she’s just been teasing for staring at her, when it won’t meet the gaze of homeless folks in the street—”is some powerful shit.”
The remaining vignettes in Surface Transit chase that theme down both telling and entertaining byways as Jones inhabits characters who turn out to be linked in unorthodox ways. The first of them is the Russian-born widow of a black G.I.—a capable young woman named Pasha, whose English may be tentative (Jones’ mastery of accents is positively Streeplike) but who has learned to weave her daughter’s hair into cornrows and to fend off the sneers of neighbors (“You are not Oreo cookie…Mommy is not honky”).
Pasha is employed as a home-health-care worker by a Jewish grandmother who swears she’s not prejudiced—even as she talks about the gay son who is now dead to her. They’re soon joined onstage by Sugar, a young Caribbean actress whose audition for an MTV reality show is undermined by a goofy nervous giggle, fluttering hands, and some initially hilarious but ultimately wrenching miscalculations about just how intimate the show’s producers want her to be when recounting real-life experiences for the camera.
We also meet Joey, a homophobic cop, as he parries questions about how a gay man’s collarbone got fractured during an arrest. And we follow him to a bar, where a white-power advocate becomes almost empathetic as his valiant attempts to steer the conversation to his own prejudices are repeatedly frustrated by Joey’s obsessions. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Rashid, a onetime rapper wannabe, leads a 12-step recovery program for rhymoholics. (Lest he sound like a walking punch line, note that his free-verse rap about the “thickest blood on this planet” links slavery to consumerism in ways that would bring a smile to the lips of Karl Marx.) And rounding out Jones’ gallery of characters is Rashid’s former girlfriend, Keisha, who is determinedly maintaining her status as a virgin and recites a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired poetic riff (“Your revolution will not happen between these thighs”) that is as articulate an indictment of the misogyny behind sexualized rap lyrics as you’re likely to hear in an artistic venue anytime soon.
That fact, incidentally, escaped the folks at the Federal Communications Commission, which ruled Jones’ poem indecent and fined an Oregon radio station for playing it. Jones, who has performed this same material in middle schools without incident and who speaks internationally on women’s rights, could hardly let that ruling stand; she was essentially forced to sue the FCC for abridging her First Amendment rights.
Notwithstanding that extratheatrical hoopla (which Jones references briefly in a curtain speech), Surface Transit is certainly provocative, but far more rousing than accusatory in Gloria Feliciano’s briskly revelatory staging. It’s also so wildly entertaining that at the preview I attended, the audience leapt cheering to its feet before Jones even had time to bound back to the stage for her bows. She’s been called a Gen-X Whoopi Goldberg, and compared favorably with Tomlin, Eve Ensler, and Anna Deavere Smith, all of whose methods of conjuring characters have clearly inspired her. Jones is, however, a true original—one you shouldn’t even think of missing during her current stand here. Woolly Mammoth’s auditorium is considerably more intimate than any venue she’s likely to be playing once word gets around.
Last fall, it was hard to attend a D.C. theater without tripping over a Greek classic. Now we’ve reached midseason replacement time and area theaters—taking a cue from the Fox network, perhaps—are serving up allegedly hip, contemporary riffs on the same-old, same-old. Two weeks ago, Studio premiered an inventive but schizoid Prometheus with what amounted to a Quantum Leap second act that transported its Greek gods to the present. This week, Scena Theater weighs in with a Touched by an Angel take on the Agamemnon story, in which the ghosts of slaughtered House of Atreus elders sit down to dinner with their murderous children.
Ambitious, but inconsistently acted and indifferently directed, Scena’s production is actually two plays by contemporary Greek dramatist Iakovos Kambanellis. The curtain-raiser, Letter to Orestes, finds Clytemnestra (Ioanna Gavakou) scribbling a note to her son explaining why she killed his father, Agamemnon (Ross Dippel), even as Orestes (Ashley Strand) and his vengeance-demanding sis Elektra (Elizabeth Pierotti) are on their way to avenge Dad’s death by killing Mom.
After intermission, we leap to the end of the story: Kambanellis’ The Supper, in which the kids join their sister Iphigeneia (Kimberly Gilbert) for an Atreus family reunion of sorts, not knowing she’s poisoned their wine in hopes of ending the familial carnage once and for all. Their various victims are also in ghostly but noisy attendance, unheard by the living as they argue and cavil, but making their presence felt nonetheless (“Haven’t you noticed?…The more we talk about these things, the more they remember them”).
Apart from some acerbic line readings from Regan Wilson in a subsidiary part, and a halfhearted, last-minute attempt to turn the evening Pirandellian, Robert McNamara’s staging is performed almost entirely on a single declamatory note. But it’s hard to argue that a more nuanced performance would help. Even if you give Kambanellis the benefit of the doubt and assume his script’s virtues are getting lost in translation, the evening amounts to little more than theatrical grave robbing. CP