Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: June, 2016

Another Way Home

You know you’ve just seen a play that hits a nerve about the distress of parents who have a troublesome, troubled son (whom they love but don’t know how to cope with) when  you’re reading the paper the next morning and there’s an advice column about that very dilemma: “We’re close to tossing him out,” a distraught parent writes.

Coincidentally in Anna Ziegler’s play Another Way Home (just opened at Theater J in a terrific production smartly directed by Shirley Serotsky), a 50-something Manhattan attorney named Philip (Rick Foucheux) reaches a point of exasperation with his difficult son Joey (Chris Stinson) such that he abruptly yells at him, “Get lost”—whereupon the boy does so, literally disappearing, thereby terrifying Philip and his wife Lillian (Naomi Jacobson) that their son is gone for good.

The scene of this harsh confrontation is a summer camp in Maine, as picturesque as a postcard in Paige Hathaway’s scenic design, bathed in Harold F. Burgess II’s bucolic lighting. It’s a place to which well-off parents send their city kids to enjoy the great outdoors—a place that’s really really meant to be very very happy. (I assume the camp’s name, Camp Kickapoo, is a wry reference to Kickapoo Joy Juice, the fictional drink  featured in Li’l Abner comics.)

Philip and Lillian have shown up on Parent’s Day to visit their son, and Joey is not at all pleased to see them. He’s recalcitrant, belligerent, and wracked by adolescent angst (which Stinson plays so convincingly you might well ask, Is there a therapist in the house?). The boy lives under a dark cloud of prevailing unhappiness.

PHILIP (to the audience)
Joey isn’t an easy kid. We love him; we cherish him, but he isn’t an easy kid.
LILLIAN
Lots of learning “issues.” Lots of social “issues.” First they said it was ADD, then ADHD, then autism. Then it was a mood disorder, then an anxiety disorder, then oppositional defiant disorder, and most recently: depression. His diagnoses change as much as he does.

By contrast Philip and Lillian’s daughter Nora (Shayna Blass) is a brainy, trouble-free teen who’s bright as daylight. (Blass’s scenes are mostly in Nora’s small bedroom, which is set apart stage left, and her endearing portrayal, like when she sings hilariously a Taylor Swift song,  pretty much stops the show each time she’s on.)

Coincidentally, the parents seeking advice in that newspaper column I happened upon also had a daughter who’s no problem. Apparently there’s something in the zeitgeist that  Ziegler gets.

Another Way Home plays like a domestic comedy just in rustic surroundings. Funny lines. Snappy cracks. And never more so than when  Philip and Lillian address the audience directly—which Foucheux and Jacobson do like a team of seasoned raconteurs who share the same pulse. The way Ziegler has scripted this long-married couple is kind of conventional but seems thoroughly fresh  in Foucheux’s and Jacobson’s assured hands.

Philip’s and Lillian’s anxieties over  Joey’s well-being have frayed their relationship, but as Ziegler makes clear, they have other marital tensions not attributable to their son. Among them is Philip’s obsessive sexual interest in watching a particular a ballerina on stage, a past circumstance that prompted Lillian to realize that though she loved him, “I would never know him.”

That becomes true of Philip and Lillian’s relationship to Joey as well: They love him but cannot know him. And during the course of the play, they  come reluctantly to accept the limits of their loving:

LILLIAN
You want your child to be happy. It’s all you want.
PHILIP
You think you can provide…happiness and then you realize you can’t.

In a recent Q&A Director Serotsky underscored that theme,

the anguish parents Philip and Lillian experience over the realization that—for all that they can provide their children—they cannot make them happy. That no amount of money can purchase joy, or acceptance, or a sense of purpose, or meaningful relationships, or an ease about moving through the world.

But as Another Way Home progressed, I sensed another theme going on as well, something Ziegler seems to have inserted almost surreptitiously inside her play, something quite insightful about race and class. The tipoff is how Ziegler has incorporated the character of Joey’s camp counselor Mike (who is played by Thony Mena with phenomenal presence—unassuming, deceptively understated, yet like a significance depth charge).

Mike is not upper-middle class. He doesn’t have a well-off solicitous mom and dad like Joey. He was raised by his grandmother, in a house across the lake. A few years older than Joey, Mike has grown up to be smart, stable, and talented, and now a student at Vassar. (Mike’s ethnicity is not specified in the script, but see my interview with Shirley Serotsky for a fascinating discussion of how casting an actor of color to play the part enriched the play.)

Joey and Mike have a scene together near the end, and in it Mike tells Joey that he would have really been happy to have had parents like Joey’s. The scene is not long, it goes by fast, but it was the most moving in the play. It shows in stark relief that Joey’s unhappiness, including the parents he insolently complains of, is due to more than any  diagnosis; it’s about privilege he takes for granted.

Ziegler doesn’t really sustain what transpires in that scene; it’s somewhat mortised in. And in fact the whole play is premised on the family’s unquestioned and unexamined privilege—all of which makes this show comfortably entertaining. But tucked inside all the humor, in the character of Mike and his interactions with Joey, is a race and class lens on happiness that could set kindling on fire.

Ultimately a remarkable mix of very funny and seriously astute, Theater J’s Another Way Home is well worth leaving home for.

 

 

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Mariposa & the Saint

The very transportable set for this touring production consists of a small enclosure of flimsy, fragile fabric cubes painted to look like stone blocks but really as insubstantial as little laundry hampers. They take on obdurate solidity, though, as Julia Steele Allen begins her formidable performance inside them of a woman in solitary confinement.

The prisoner’s name is Sara Fonseca, called Mariposa on account of her butterfly tattoo, a 33-year-old mother of two whom she has not seen in 12 years. Hers has been an unimaginably protracted confinement. As Allen tells her story—mostly in Mariposa’s own words, written in letters to Allen over the course of three years—we are confronted with a fact about our country that has to rank among its all-time greatest shames: Though the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture considers solitary confinement cruel and inhuman punishment if it goes on longer than 15 days, right now in this land of the free more than 80,000 people are in SHU (Security Housing Unit, aka “the hole”), and many of them, like Mariposa, have been there for years.

For 23 out of every 24 hours they are absolutely isolated, yet no judge sentenced them to serve even a minute of their prison time in solitary. There was no due process. There is now no right of appeal. They are there merely at the whim of wardens, who in the United States prison industrial complex wield a power to play state’s sadist that the Constitution ostensibly prohibits.

The theater project began when Allen met Mariposa while volunteering with a group advocating for women prisoners in California. Their relationship is as much a part of the play as is  Mariposa’s ordeal (some of which is excruciating to hear, as when she tells of being repeatedly raped at age seven by her mother’s johns). At one point Mariposa says, “You are my soul. You are my best me.” And the bond of care and solidarity between them becomes our tether to Mariposa’s plight too. At another point the audience joins Allen in reading a poem that she wrote for and to Mariposa:

If only I could see you now
I would tell you
You have a place
It is with me

Allen’s performance was riveting. More than playing a character, she seemed to be channeling emotions and experience from within  Mariposa’s world. And it  became evident in a post-show discussion that she has been conscientious in keeping the coauthored work—credited equally to Sara Fonseca and herself—a real collaboration. This being the last performance of a year-long tour, Allen said she now will go back to visit Mariposa and consult her about what becomes of the project next.

Mariposa & the Saint was presented one night only by Arcturus Theater Company, whose artistic mission is to “prompt discussion on topics that do not come up naturally in everyday conversation,” in partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Noelle Ghossaini  directed, Michi Osato was stage manager and assistant director, and Javier Gaston-Greenberg performed in a nonspeaking role as a masked corrections officer (“C.O.”).

Mariposa & the Saint is wake-up theater, indict-the-conscience theater, and incite-to-action theater. It’s exactly the kind of theater the world needs more of.

Running Time: About 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Mariposa & the Saint presented by Arcturus Theater Company was performed June 24, 2015, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, 1313 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.

Chalk

There’s an ancient child-custody legend about two women who claim to be the mother of the same infant. In the well-known Hebrew Bible version, their dispute is resolved when King Solomon orders the child to be sliced in half—and the true mother wails, Don’t kill it, let her have it! In the classic Chinese verse play version, a magistrate orders the two wannabe mamas to stand on opposite sides of a chalk circle and pull the child apart. The woman who refuses is again adjudged the true mother.

How, where, and why this don’t-split-the-kid legend originated is kind of a mystery. And the fact it has come down to us in so many theatrical iterations (the Peking Opera, Bertolt Brecht, Charles Mee) is a matter that shrinks and pundits could have a field day with. (What it says alone about patriarchy’s motherlode of mommy and daddy issues is…oh, don’t get me started.) Or maybe the legend lives on onstage for the simple reason that—as amply evidenced in We Happy Few Productions’ antic new adaptation—it plays like blazes.

The show is called Chalk, just opened at the company’s new home at Capital Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW). Actual chalk plays an ingenious part in the production’s fast-paced staging and quick-witted storytelling. You’ve heard of a black box? Chalk turns the theater into a blackboard box. As the audience enters, the flat-black walls are covered with Chalk Designer Adelaide Waldrop’s whimsical drawings of a town square, a clock tower, surrounding mountains, and the like. In the course of the play’s breakneck action, the big blackboard comes amusingly into use as when a royal building is set on fire in an insurrection and an actor scrawls chalk flames on its depiction, or when a renegade is hanged from a hastily etched noose. The  flat-black floor too becomes by turns a river outlined in blue from which a woman fleeing with a child drinks, and a bridge of hashtags across which she teeters with the tot to safety. The charming originality of Chalk’s graphical production concept is reason enough to hightail it to the show.

It helps to know going in that Chalk will culminate in a classic chalk-circle scene with a mama-a-mama tug of ward. By the time that contest comes, the suspense is intense, the stakes are high, and the scene does not disappoint. But how the show gets there is a galloping ruckus of delights.

Director (and main writer) Kerry McGee puts Chalk’s cast of seven through some of the zippiest paces this side of movie chases: Josh Adams, Raven Bonniwell, Louis E. Davis, Ann Fraistat, Natasha Gallop, Robert Pike, and Jon Reynold—playing 19 (count ’em) roles—dash on and off and in and out of scenes  with head-spinning dexterity.  Somehow they find time offstage to change in and out of Costume Designer  Julie Leong’s  inventive character wear (mostly white, black, and gray like a chalkboard). And Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s agile light cues and Set Designer Dean Leong’s simple architecture help make the show seem a super-smart cartoon.

So who are these characters, where are they, and what’s going on? It’s someplace vaguely Russian, or so it seems from the costumes and the scene-changing folk melodies chosen by Sound Designer Robert Pike. There’s a governor and his wife who are overthrown in some sort of coup. There’s a serving woman who cares for their baby boy and escapes with it.  Multicomplications ensue, which to be honest I’m ill equipped to explain. In the manic mayhem that kicks off the show, it took me a while to figure out that I  didn’t have to track the plot exactly to  enjoy all the performances and punchlines.

Promo for the show says helpfully

At its simplest, Chalk is a story of motherhood.  A wise judge draws a chalk circle on the ground to determine the true mother of a contested child.

However, it’s also a story about revolution and rebellion.  It’s about the choices we are forced to make for ourselves, for our families and for the causes we believe in.  It’s about the working class and the wealthy, justice and family, duty and survival.

The entire cast is an excellent ensemble but two performances stand out: Josh Adams as the judge (who seems hilariously dippy but knows what he’s up to) and Natasha Gallop the serving woman (who earns our sympathy instantly and never lets it go).

Catch Chalk at CHAW. The whole shebang is a bangup show.

Running Time: About 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Chalk plays through July 9, 2016, at We Happy Few Productions performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

For a bigger think about Chalk, and insights into how it came into being, I recommend Production Manager and Dramaturg Keith Hock’s recent blog posts.

No-No Boy

No-No Boy is an extraordinary and essential play. It’s about what happened  to innocent people when this country demonized and incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. To witness it now—as anti-Muslim rumblings are being trumped up to a roar—is to be shell-shocked by how close we are to seeing that horrific and fear-fueled history repeat.

No-No Boy has been adapted into a tight, intense script by playwright and actor Ken Narasaki from the 1957 novel of the same name by John Okada. The pioneering New York City–based Pan Asian Repertory Theatre brought its simply staged production of the play to DC for two performances only, in the Burke Theatre, an auditorium with amphitheater seating inside the  Naval Heritage Center. The lobby display ambiance underscored graphically the military context of the play’s events. Directed with precision by Ron Nakahara and performed by a sterling cast of ten, No-No Boy blew me away from the very beginning.

The play is set in Seattle in 1946 as Japanese Americans are returning to their homes from the internment camps (“fenced…in the desert like they do the Jews in Germany,” as we hear a voice say). It follows the story of a young man named Ichiro (played with compelling focus by Chris Doi), who has just returned from two years in prison for refusing the draft. In a cinematic flow of episodes from Ichiro’s encounters with his family, friends, and others, No-No Boy  tells interwoven stories of how the war changed the lives of some dozen Japanese American characters in disparate and interconnected ways.

Projected onto an upstage screen is a huge Selective Service System seal, along with the text of two questions that we hear an official voice intone, demanding young men to answer in the affirmative:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor…?

When that loyalty oath was administered to Ichiro in the internment camp where he and his family had been sent, he answered both questions in the negative—hence the slur “no-no boy.” Now that the internment is over, other young men are saying yes and yes—and signing on to fight against the country where their forebears live.

During the course of No-No Boy some of the recruits return, some don’t. Some of their family members cope, some are shattered. Some in their circles assimilate as patriotic Americans, some remain torn. But the implicit personal and cultural conflicts wrought by this momentous military engagement will implode inside the lives everyone we are about to meet.

No-No Boy dramatizes a complex of perspectives, some of them contradictory, among Japanese Americans at the time; admirably, it does not mythologize a monolithic ethnic viewpoint. For instance Ichiro’s family is  divided over the conflict. His Ma  (Karen Tsen Lee)  is certain that Japan has won the war—and all else to the contrary is propaganda. His Pa (Glenn Kubota) loves her very much though he knows she is delusional, and he chastises Ichiro for confronting her and calling her crazy. What happens when Ma finally realizes the reality of what has happened to her homeland is heartbreaking.

In another stirring scene, Ichiro visits the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kumasaka (Scott Kitajima and Shigeko Sara Suga). They had a son named Bobby, and as his battle buddy Jun (Claro de los Reyes) relates the story of how Bobby was shot (“Ping, and he’s dead”), we hear the inconsolable keening of Mrs. Kumasaka.

Ichiro meets a friend he hasn’t seen in years named Eto (another remarkable performance by de los Reyes). Upon learning that Ichiro is a No-No boy, Eto spits at him with contempt. Another friend of Ichiro’s who served in the U.S. military—Freddie (an impressive Hansel Tan)—is far more supportive, to the extent that he fixes Itchiro up with Emi (a wonderful Leanne Cabrera). Her husband has been away for four years, re-upping in the army in Germany apparently with no intention to come back to her. With Freddie’s encouragement as well as Emi’s, Itchiro begins a relationship with her. They have a sweet scene in which they mime playing the piano together (“Do you know ‘Chopsticks’?” she asks in an instance of the script’s wit). It is as if in their mutually healing romance, Itchiro finds the acceptance and place in the world he has been bereft of since the war.

Other notable performances are given by Don Castro as Kenji, a friend of Itchiro’s who lost a leg in combat, and Tony Vo as Taro, Itchiro’s younger brother, who intends to enlist. When Itchiro asks him to think it over, Taro replies angrily, in a speech that conveys something of the passions coursing through this play:

I had plenty of time to think about it when you were in prison and here’s what I think: We were BORN here, we play BALL here, we listen to music here, we’re gonna get married here, we’re gonna have kids here. We OWE this country something for that! Let Ma believe whatever she believes, let Pa go along with it if that’s what he wants, but me? I’m an AMERICAN and I’m going to fight like an American! You and your pals? You had your chance and what did you prove? That they were RIGHT NOT TO TRUST YOU!

Sheryl Liu’s minimalist set makes effective use of a small table (which became that piano) and wooden folding chairs (which become a hospital bed, an automobile, a living room). The sound design by Ian Wehrle amplified those simple set pieces with such a vivid sense of place no more seemed needed. A lighting design was not utilized at the Burke, just a plain wash on the stage, which worked fine in the circumstances. And knife-fight choreography by Michael C. Chin was electricly authentic.

I spoke after the show with Nakahara and Artistic Producing Director Tisa Chang, who  confirmed my supposition that the choice to produce this play now and perform it in DC had intentionally to do with the fear mongering abroad in our land. No-No Boy  deserves to have real run here; it is every bit as worthy a stage work as any number of recent plays with a political conscience. Till that day comes, I can only urge everyone who cares about how theater connects to this country’s past and future to catch Pan Asian Rep’s No-No Boy wherever whenever you can.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

No-No Boy played June 18 and 19 at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre performing at The Burke Theatre in the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC.

Matt & Ben

After filming not a few Rotten Tomatoes targets and appearing in too many tabloid headlines, the real Ben Affleck has cleaned up and redeemed himself in the public stargaze, both professionally and personally. And the real Matt Damon, whose charmed professional and personal life never suffered Affleckian setbacks, regularly sees his name on major marquees as well. Between Batman and Bourne, they’re enfranchised for life.  But there was a time back in the day when the two het hunks were just two struggling actors and not-snuggling buddies, and the luminosity of their stars in the galaxy of pop culture was yet to dazzle.
In an inspired comic riff on both celebrity obsession and reality, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers created and wrote (and themselves acted Off-Broadway in) a show called Matt & Ben, which imagines Damon and Affleck in 1995 before the career godsend that was Good Will Hunting (the movie that earned them an Oscar for Best Screenplay). And the joke that jump-starts Kaling and Withers’ clever conceit is that the script of Good Will Hunting may literally have been sent by God: In a fast tableau it falls from the ceiling kerplop.

Like, how else to explain the brilliance of two relatively dim bulbs, right?

Flying V—the inventive theater company that mines pop culture and comes up with precious theatrical mettle—has just opened a production of Matt & Ben that is howlingly funny. It features Tia Shearer (as Matt) and Katie Jeffries (as Ben), whose quicksilver comic gifts are not to be missed. And it takes trendy genderbending out for a fresh, fun spin

 

The play takes place in Ben’s spacious student-style apartment (economically devised by Set Designer Jos. B. Muscumeci, Jr.) with a Red Sox pennant, dart board, and School Ties poster on the wall. (The  mock Matt and Ben before us are said to have appeared in that film—as did the actual actors.) The period desktop Mac and snack food wrappers strewn about say entitled boy cave.

 

At rise Matt and Ben (dressed preppy casual by Costume Designer Kat Fleshman) are collaborating on an ill-conceived film version of Catcher in the Rye (“Adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery”), and we get to know that Matt’s the smarter hardworking one and Ben’s the slacker dullard. The ripe comic potential in the pair’s contrasting temperaments yields plenty peals of laughter as the zany and surreal story unfolds.

Shifts in layers of reality are signaled smartly by Lighting Designer Kristin A. Thompson, as in a silly bit when Matt plays guitar and sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at a mic stand as if for a live audience and Ben upstages him bizarrely on tambourine. Another unreal-world scene occurs when Gwyneth Paltrow drops by (a funny, spot-on caricature by  Jeffries), and later J.D. Salinger shows up (as an outsize clown of a character played with showstopping gusto by Shearer).
Director Matt Bassett stages the show with the slickest and tightest comic precision. And when the tension between Matt and Ben goes mano-a-mano (as with dueling dudes it’s wont to do), Shearer and Jeffries’s comedy goes off the charts—no small thanks to Fight Director Jonathan Ezra Rubin.

Matt & Ben is a show that skewers a whole lot—male-male cockiness and competitiveness, the circus that is celebrity, the crazy fluke that’s creativity—yet does so without mean-spiritedness and ultimately with genuine affection and admiration for working artists. After thoroughly enjoying both the levity and brevity of this screwball show, I found myself wondering whether it would have been as laugh-out-loud funny had Matt and Ben been played by male actors. And without hesitation I found myself answering: No. What Kaling and Withers have created, and what Shearer and Jeffries now boldly embody, is something remarkable: the guise of guys seen through women’s gaze as human comedy.

 

Sure, Matt & Ben is  essentially lite, long-form sketch comedy. But as such it’s a sheer delight, plus it’s got something quite sweet to say.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Matt & Ben plays through June 26, 2016 at Flying V Theatre performing at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

Going to a Place Where You Already Are

Whatever your mental picture of heaven, the funny and beautifully moving production of Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place Where You Already Are just opened at Theater Alliance may alter it. Alternately, if you’ve got no image of the hereafter whatsoever (because who knows if there even is one?), this play’s afterimage may leave you with a glimpse of what you’ve been dismissing.

As the audience files in to be seated around the stage space, a mighty pipe organ plays (the first of many wonderfully scene-setting soundscapes by Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson). Two huge wood pews are wheeled in (the first of Scenic Designer Brian Gillick’s  many wonderfully specific roll-on-and-off set pieces), and two older folks take a seat in  one of them.

They are a married couple, Roberta  and Joe, there to attend a funeral. As they chatter through the service not so sotto voce, we learn they both believe the idea of an afterlife to be bunk. Thus death and dying enter the show up top. But we also begin to see a marvelously lively and loving quality in the relationship between Roberta and Joe. As performed with great sensitivity by Annie Houston and Gregory Ford, they are characters we warm to instantly.

Meanwhile a younger male figure  hovers solicitously and mysteriously on the sidelines wearing (in one of Costume Designer Kara Waala’s many nice touches) a sleek blue suit and white sneakers without socks. He hands Roberta and Joe a hymnal when it comes time for them to sing along with the churchful of mourners. Later we will learn he is an Angel (a winning and nimble Alan Naylor). For now, his inexplicable appearance is our entrée to the show’s delightful magical realism.

Cut to a scene somewhere else, the bedroom of a young woman named Ellie (an impressively expressive Tricia Homer). Under the covers with her is a sweet-natured young man named Jonas (a genuinely likable  MacGregor Arney), whom she picked up the day before and spent the night with. He wants to stay the day; she liked their lovemaking too but lets him know it’s time for him to go. She tells him it’s because she has work to do. But when he gets out of bed, gets dressed, and gets into the wheelchair he uses, we get that Ellie’s reluctance may be about Jonas’s disability. Thus begins a remarkable maybe-not-or-maybe love story.

Ellie is Joe’s granddaughter and Roberta’s step-granddaughter, so when Roberta learns she has a terminal tumor, the two story lines intersect.

During a diagnostic medical procedure, Roberta has an experience of dying and going to heaven. (Nielsen and Lighting Designer Mary Keegan create the lovely otherworldly effect.) And that puts Roberta’s and Joe’s loving each other at odds: Roberta elects to decline the excruciating treatments that come next because she’s all ready to go back to that wondrous place. Joe, on the other hand, desperately needs her to continue treatment because he cannot bear the thought of losing her, and he doesn’t believe in that place anyway. Thus Roberta’s and Joe’s deep decades-long love undergoes a crisis of crossed faith.

Going to a Place Where You Already Are is an extraordinary evocation of love in life and loss in death. It is funny. It is sad. It is joyful. It is painful. Theater Alliance Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde  directs from a wellspring of honesty and empathy. This is a from-the-heart and -soul show that can truthfully be called heavenly. And at some point during it, anyone who has ever lost a loved one may find themselves (as I did) losing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Octoroon

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon wears irony on its sleeve with the same effrontery that three of its characters wear red, white, and black greasepaint to dissemble “race.” Just opened at Woolly Mammoth, in a preconception-smashing production directed by Nataki Garrett, An Octoroon is among the most acclaimed recent  works by playwrights of color that lampoon America’s endemic racism with disarming cheek and wit.

Theater is tailor-made for such cultural disruption; and as Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrated in Appropriate (which knocked me out when I saw it three seasons ago at Woolly), he’s a master at it. Dissimulation and discombobulation play on stage better than in any other art form. Scathing satire can say what’s serious far better than sermonizing. So why not send up race hate in the funnest way possible?

Nothing can’t be laughed at, right? Look at Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler.” Comedy can be cathartic. It speaks spoof to power.

An Octoroon’s mashup of performance styles is captured at Woolly with unerring flair. Among the production’s delightfully head-spinning attributes is the performance of Jon Hudson Odom in the prologue. Alone onstage in his underwear, Odom as BJJ enthralls with his comic turn mock-complaining to his prissy white therapist about the burden of being a black playwright. It’s a theme Jacobs-Jenkins struggles with personally and professionally. As he said in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m put in a position where I have to engage with what people bring to my work which is an expectation for me to talk about race because it’s not normal for a black writer to be writing in the theatre.

Odom jump-starts the show with Jacobs-Jenkins’s in-your-face response to that pigeonholing, which is to poke fun at it: Before long the actor is smearing on whiteface in preparation to play a plantation owner.

Introduced in a subsequent scene on said plantation in the roles of two slaves are Shannon Dorsey as Minnie and Erika Rose as Dido. The sight gag that starts the scene  stops the show: Dido earnestly sweeping a floor clear of loose cotton while Minnie looks on lazily and eats a banana. Adding to the joke, the two speak in contemporary idiom. In one fell swoop, Jacobs-Jenkins sends up at least a half dozen racial stereotypes, and Dorsey and Rose as the sassy duo are stunningly funny.

Not only the acting but also the stage arts convey the play’s ironic insouciance. You can almost see air quotes hovering over, for instance, Micha Kachman’s flat false front of a plantation manse and Ivania Stack’s shapeless sackcloth costumes for the slaves and cartoonish day-glo formalwear for the plantation’s white elite.

The essence of irony—and why it suits Jacobs-Jenkins’s purpose and so pleases us—is that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning are not the same. There’s bait and switch, some entertaining misdirection from what really is being said. Thus there comes a scene in An Octoroon when the playwright lets us see what dead seriousness lies beneath.

As staged at Woolly, this big reveal feels even more stark and unsettling than the scene in Appropriate when we learned of a dysfunctional white Southern family’s ancestral complicity in lynching. Whereas in Appropriate the sobering disclosure functioned organically as a story engine, in An Octaroon, it’s just stuck in, like an inserted image from some other documentary-style play. It’s nothing like the playful and winking stuff that came before it, nothing like the playful and winking stuff that follows. It’s as if all those fiddledeedee air quotes are interrupted for a horrific OMG—and then keep fiddling as if nothing happened. But the moment comes as a shock to one’s system, like a stun gun to consciousness, and it burns into one’s brain.

In many ways An Octoroon seems cannily constructed as a “post-racial” divertissment—an entertaining evening in the theater that DC’s diverse audiences might equally enjoy. But there’s more up the sleeve upon which Jacobs-Jenkins wears that irony.  In the same interview he said,

I wrestle with this idea of consensus in theatre all the time, where everyone’s supposed to feel the exact same thing together. But I’m interested in when we actually diverge on topics…

It’s in that uncompromising, stuck-in scene that what Woolly Mammoth’s radically entertaining An Octoroon “means” has nothing and everything to do with its audience’s race.