Plot Twists…

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A outstanding assembly of DC’s African American LGBTQ artists converged to create Plot Twists…, a late addition to the DC Black Theatre Festival lineup. Conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe—and presented in conjunction with the festival by Brave Soul Collective—the show was an anthology of dramatic and comedic monologues, short scenes, and staged readings, each featuring a truly surprising plot twist and each written especially for this one-night-only performance. The result was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging evening that was also timely, topical, and thought-provoking.

Requiem for an Epitaph: A Monologue (written and performed by Michael Sainte-Andress) began the program with a poignant first-person reflection on life as a senior in the LGBT community: “True beauty exists at any age!,” Sainte-Andress preaches inspiringly.

An improbable encounter between a transwoman (played by Jorge Lander) who was being harassed on the street and a bible-thumping church lady (Valerie Papaya Mann) was the almost-sketch-comedy setup in Bad Religion (written by Stanley Freeman and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). But as the two sat down at a café and talked, the play took a completely unexpected turn and ended on a gesture of acceptance that genuinely surprised and pleased the audience.

In a monologue titled Broken Crayons, Writer/Performer Jared Shamberger told a touching and poetic story about liking to color when he was a boy—his favorite Crayolas being midnight blue and scarlet—and a favorite playmate, a boy who also liked to color. They would color together for hours. Then Shamberger learned that the boy had been abused. “Even broken crayons can still color,” Shamberger says hopefully.

Stealth Bombs (written and directed by Monte J. Wolfe) began with a young man (Stanley Freeman) telling a best friend (Wilma Lynn Horton) about his painful breakup with his boyfriend. Their witty banter does nothing to heal the man’s hurt heart. The play takes a sobering turn as the scene shifts to a meeting between the man and his ex-boyfriend (Jivon Lee Jackson), when the real reason the ex behaved so badly is revealed.

Conditioned (written by Stanley Freeman, performed by Monte J. Wolfe) was a tender reminiscence of growing up as a child who was called “sweet” and “soft” and “gay.” There ensue efforts to make him into a real man. But realizing the “hypermasculine image” never fit him, he comes to accept being called soft. “I’ll take it,” he says.

Writer/Director Alan Sharpe created in The Chance of a Lifetime an illuminating short drama about the experience of an older man (Michael Sainte-Andress) who lost scores of friends to HIV/AIDS but survived, and now has turned inward, selfishly surrounding himself with possessions and living a solitary life in suburbia. He is visited by three of those deceased friends (Monte J. Wolfe, Stanley Freeman, and Jared Shamberger), who come to do an intervention: to get him to stop wasting time and squandering his life. The message and the metatheatrical metaphor are stunning.

A Water Break (written and directed by Jared Shamberger) had two guy friends out for a run together (Jeremy Keith Hunger and Jivon Lee Jackson) taking exactly what the title says. It turns out to be the trope of two ostensibly straight men discovering their sexual feelings for each other. The casual flirting is handled cleverly and originally, however, and the buildup and the realization come as an enjoyable surprise.

The most powerful piece of the evening was My Sweet Black Babushka (written by Josette Marina Murray and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). Performed with awesome emotional force by Thembi Duncan, it told a mother’s story of raising her baby boy in a family of strong women only to see him grow up and be shot dead in too-familiar circumstances of racist police action. The action that the mother takes in response had the audience riveted. There was mention during the talkback of turning this short monodrama into a full-length theater piece—a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree. The piece was absolutely superb.

Writer/Performer Monte J. Wolfe—whose multiple talents and producing vision had been been evident all evening—brought the program to a wistful close with another childhood reminiscence. This one, The Fine Print, referenced the do-over joys of playing with an Etch-a-Sketch toy and wondered aloud, “Why can’t life be like that?” And where was the fine print that warned there would be disappointment, heartbreak, and such? “I feel at war with adulthood,” he says.

This was the first time I’d attended one of the one-night-only themed anthology shows that Brave Soul Collective and Monte J. Wolfe have been putting together for several years. Next time another of these creative and content-rich collaborations comes around, my advice is: catch it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Plot Twists played June 28, 2015 at Brave Soul Collective performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington, DC.