Warehouse, 645 New York Ave. NW
Thursday, July 14, 7:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 16, noon
Tuesday, July 19, 7:45 p.m.
Friday, July 22, 6 p.m.
They say: “Sara fortune teller & member of the ‘We Bomb Truth Over Lies’ graffiti movement is haunted. The City eats its residents, exiling their spirits to Saras apartment, while Go-Go & its Mayor BirdMan funk eternal.”
Matts Take: You box me up inside your prayers, says Araba Browns Sara Josephine James, as five other characters—-all different forces acting on her life—-literally surround her with boards, trying to trap her in with all the complexities of being a modern black woman. We learn that shes already been through much and faces constant judgment for past mistakes, but her travails arent anywhere near an end. In fact, theyre about to get a whole lot weirder.
Nina Angela Mercers Gypsy & the Bully Door follows its lithe protagonist as she dances, fucks, sings, and suffers through two cities and compounded miseries in search of the way to transcendence. With her believable passion and even more astounding talent as a dancer, Brown steals every scene shes in (the possible exception comes in a back-and-forth between Sara and her has-been of an idol, Mama Chola, played by a delightfully zany Nicole Brewer).
The audience is first greeted with an electric piano laying down a soft groove. Soon the rest of an exceptionally tight live quintet joins in, and we see a slideshow depicting a Metro station, uptown joint Madams Organ, and other scenes from District life. Sara, it turns out, is a D.C. native. But the city hasnt been kind to her, nor to her roommate Khadijah (Dot McDonald) nor their respective boyfriends Roy (Kahlil Daniel) and Nate (Akil Williams).
In fact, Nate has just returned from Afghanistan, and though he made it through the horrors of war, he cant escape the police departments deadly racism, and early on winds up shot down on the street. But he doesnt disappear, at least not from Saras life. It just so happens that Sara can communicate with spirits of the deceased, and sure enough Nate appears, gunshot wounds bleeding through his T-shirt and all, and informs her of her mission: to bomb (read: tag with graffiti) chain restaurants on U Street NW.
Naturally the plan goes awry, spurring Sara to do what shes always wanted: flee to New York and try to make it as a dancer, her dreams validated by—-what else?—-a spectral visit from Mama Chola.Roytags along. They change their names (with Sara now calling herself Destiny Rose) and start anew; but Roy has dreams of his own, and accepts a white mans offer to travel the world as part of a touring art exhibition. Meanwhile, Saras visit to Chola ends in disappointment, and she settles into a life of fortune telling and hairdressing. Among her clients are a sympathetic white social worker and his frustrated Latina girlfriend.
Everything from Saras initial visions to her eventual breakdown and resurrection attempts to capture the summation of the black experience in America. Its an admirable challenge, but the play suffers from trying to do too much. While only occasionally stopping to focus, Mercer takes on gentrification, police brutality, media sensationalism, sexual double standards, mistreatment of veterans, white guilt, Uncle Toms, commercial art, the power of spirituality, broken promises, shattered dreams, and national politics.
The tasks sheer magnitude works against it. Take one of the plays most bizarre sequences, in which the actor playing Roy emerges as Brotha President (read: Barack Obama), a stiff puppet who dances the soft-shoe to amuse a Southern slave trader. It’s an interesting and certainly controversial idea, but one that demands more polish to have its desired effect. Still, Mercer has an uncanny ear for dialogue and knows how to flesh out great characters. Coupled with Eric Ruffins direction—-the scenes in which Sara achieves near-bliss through sexual ecstasy are plain gorgeous—-and you have yourself a stirring play.
See it if: You like the thought of Toni Morrison, Parliament/Funkadelic, and vaudeville theater having a lovechild.
Skip it if: Thinking about race, sex, funk, or all three together makes you uncomfortable.