Page-to-Stage New Play Festival: Brave Soul Collective and African-American Collective Theater

by John Stoltenberg

Two of DC’s most important independent theater collectives bearing witness as black artists to #BlackLivesMatter are Brave Soul Collective and African-American Collective Theater (ACT). Both commemorated milestones Saturday with bills of new short plays in Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival. In the afternoon, Brave Soul marked its tenth anniversary with Tenfold: An Evening of Brave Soul Performances,  conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe. That was followed in the evening by ACT’s More Than a Mouthful…, written and directed by Alan Sharpe, marking ACT’s twenty-fifth anniversary

For several years now I have observed both collectives to be consistent producers of important storytelling about black lives, and both to be generally overlooked by DC’s  mainstream theater world. Judging from the excellence of the past writing I have seen staged by both companies (almost all the plays are set in DC), and considering the high quality of local talent showcased in this new work (writers, directors, actors), this oversight makes no sense to me…except as an instance of #TheaterSoWhite.

One of the best things about Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival—which marks its own fifteenth anniversary this year—is how well the breadth of its free programming represents the diversity of what smaller independent theater companies in town are up to. As I wrote in “DC Theater’s Whopping Wayfinding Problem,” nothing makes it easy for theatergoers to discover DC’s vibrant indie theater scene. If you’re not intentionally seeking out more than what theaters with substantial ad budgets are doing, all that creativity will go unnoticed and unseen. But for two full days each Labor Day weekend, Page-to-Stage kind of fills that void—as KenCen becomes an all-you-can-see theatrical buffet that makes you wish you could taste everything and then go back for seconds of the good stuff.

There was plenty of good stuff  in Tenfold and Mouthful. Either program alone would have been a complete and satisfying evening in the theater. Back to back, they were a foodie’s heaven.

Below are the credits from each of the two programs with annotations. I cannot review particular performances here (much as I might want to enthuse about some of them), because Page-to-Stage adheres to Equity rules about staged readings, a principle I respect. So what follows is more like a descriptive menu that tells what’s in each dish—and reports briefly what each short play was.

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TENFOLD: AN EVENING OF BRAVE SOUL PERFORMANCES

See Her
Written by Thembi Duncan
Performed by Josette Marina Murray
A black woman pays eloquent homage to slain black trans women and fiercely protests their erasure (“This is not the oppression olympics…. See her. Her black life matters too”).

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Lip Locked
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Performed by Zukeh Freeman & Monte J. Wolfe
A socially conscious comedy about two gay fathers of an adopted one-year-old son, and the tensions that flare up between them over their finances and fundraising.

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Hashtag, You’re It
Written & Performed by Jared Shamberger
A satirical standup routine about a gay man haplessly obsessed with social media relying hilariously on tweets, texts, pins, and emojis to find the man of his dreams. (Along with the audience I howled with laughter throughout. It needs to be on YouTube.)

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Virginia Is for Lovers
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Darnell Morris & Kandace Foreman
A touching comedy about a straight man and a woman who has fallen for another woman and is gently letting him know she’s leaving him (“I have a big heart to love many people”). He doesn’t take it well.

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Black & Blue…& Pink
Written & Directed by Jared Shamberger
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
An intense drama about a black gay police officer being interrogated because after witnessing his white partner bludgeon a gay black man, he impulsively shoved the fellow cop off a bridge (“Everyone has some kind of rage that they keep buried”).

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Musical Chairs
Written & Directed by Monte J. Wolfe
Performed by Zukeh Freeman
The poignant and painful struggles of a young man who grew up in the foster-care system, never knowing when he would be wrenched from his foster parents and sent back, trying to win at a game he was left out of…and then coming out (“I still feel broken and damaged like a loser”).

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My Sweet Black Babushka
Written by Josette Marina Murray
Directed by Monte J. Wolfe & Josette Marina Murray
Performed by Barbara Asare-Bediako, Kandace Foreman & Josette Marina Murray
Three powerful dramatically linked monologues (the first of which I wrote about admiringly when it was performed by Thembi Duncan in Brave Soul Collective’s Plot Twists…  In the first (performed by Asare-Bediako), a black mother driven by grief over the death of her son who was killed by a cop commits eye-for-an-eye justice (“A mother is not supposed to bury her child!”). In the second (Foreman), a black female police officer, proudly loyal to the badge she wears, agonizes over having done at the crime scene what she was trained to do: block the grief-stricken mother from coming near her son’s dead body (“Do you understand we [police officers] are in pain too?”). In the third (Murray), the bereaved mother’s sister, speaking on behalf of the family, tells of the artistic interests she inspired in her beloved nephew and mourns the immeasurable loss (“My sister is broken in pieces…. Where is the justice? Where is the peace?”).

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But Keep the Old…
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe
Performed by Monte J. Wolfe, Zukeh Freeman, Jared Shamberger & Darnell Morris
A funny and compassionate intergenerational character sketch in which three gay friends come to visit their reclusive older friend “to rescue him,” because he never goes out and it’s as if he “disappeared.”

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Character Flaws
Written & Performed by Monte J. Wolfe
A complex and evocative personal testimony about anger, fear, and demons from a sero-positive gay man whose HIV is now undetectable (“It’s in the rearview mirror”), but who still feels “like a time bomb ticking, ready to explode.”

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The range of emotions evoked by the series of performances in Tenfold was extraordinary, and the audience seemed attuned to every one. During the talkback several artists acknowledged Producer Monte J. Wolfe, whose artistic vision, powers of persuasion, and prime-mover-ship evidently shaped the program’s important substance and entertaining appeal. I recommend looking out for whatever Brave Soul Collective does next. On the basis of the Brave Soul programs I’ve seen so far, I do not doubt it will be #TheaterThatMatters.

Running Time: About two hours with one intermission.

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MORE THAN A MOUTHFUL…

The Imperial We
Performed by Reginald Richard (as Winston),  Ricardo Lumpkin  (Blaine), Michael Sainte-Andress (Toussaint Dubonnet) &  Talmach White (Nigel Hawthorne)  
A domestic comedy about two young gay men, married to each other, and the difficult guests they have invited to dinner: two flamboyant older men who once were a couple but now cannot stand each other. (The vicious way they cut each other was hilarious; Sharpe is particularly adept at jaw-dropping one-liners.) The younger men’s objective: to get the  older men to move in together to a recently renovated room in their home because  the younger men have been supporting them and the exes are living beyond the young men’s means.

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Fitting the Description
Performed by Tristan Phillip Hewitt (Kofi ), Emmanuel Kyei-baffour (Van), Cleavon Meabon IV (Nelson) & Donald Burch III (Uncle Stacy)
A stinging commentary on exploitation in do-gooder charity. Two idealistic young gay men visit the father of a young woman killed by cops in order to solicit his permission to use her in their campaign “to galvanize the community.” When they find out she’s not the perfect victim, because she was born a boy, they drop their plan—and the play’s sting pivots to take on anti-trans bigotry too. (Improbably, this complete twist in the play’s content landed with remarkable force. Here as in many of Sharpe’s short plays, his melding of meaning and humor was ingenious.)

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Bedtime Story
Performed by Keanna Faircloth (Brenda) & Monte J. Wolfe (Nick)
A sharp-edged anti-romance about a woman and a man who are parents of a son. They don’t live together anymore, though he comes around regularly to be a good daddy to the child. Turns out a while back he came out as gay and left the child’s mother to live with a man. Now he and his lover have broken up—and he wants her to take him back and let him stay the night. She tells him no, she no longer trusts him, and she’s moving on. (I was particularly impressed by how Sharpe wrote this woman’s character.  He avoided all the stereotypical gay-male-centric pitfalls and instead created a woman character with enormous, integrity, likeability, and independence.)

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Matter Matter
Performed by Maurice T. Olden (Marcus Ransom), Gregory Ford (Nolan Bellamy) & Kevin L. Sanders (Bradford Ransom)
A trenchant drama about an older retired gay man, now an artist, who gives shelter to an attractive young gay man who was just teargassed in a demonstration outside. The younger man, who spends most of the play shirtless, thinks the man is after him for sex. But he’s not; he’s just trying to help him, despite the troubled young man’s violent streak, a trait he got from his father. Seeking his son, the young man’s father pays a surprise visit, assumes the worst is going on—and shoots the well-meaning older man.

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Prom Night P*ssy
Performed by Davon Harris (Jeffrey),   Tony Donaldson, Jr.  (Tyrone)  & Erika Jones  (Yolanda)
A motel room sex comedy  in which an introverted young man and a cocky young man make a plan to have sex with their high school prom dates that night. The shy boy’s date has gone partying elsewhere, but the bolder boy’s date shows up and lets the timid one know she knows  he’s gay and secretly lusts after his hunky chum. She also lets him know in all likelihood his chum would be into getting it on too. After she ditches them both to go to a party, it turns out she was right on both counts.

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Sex/Toys
Performed by Zukeh Freeman (Kenny) &  Darnell Morris (Anthony)
A domestic comedy full of zingers about masculinity and the gendered child-rearing that enforces it. Two married gay fathers of a four-year-old named Jaden bicker about what toys to buy for their boy’s birthday—whether very typically masculine toys, as the more softer-seeming dad wants, or whether more typically girl toys like dolls, as the tougher-seeming dad knows is that Jaden really wants. (I wrote admiringly of this savvy script when it was performed in May in ACT’s 24/7. Having now seen it again, I appreciate Sharpe’s comedic takedown of manhood even more. In my book, Sex/Toys is a classic.)

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Don’t Just Play With It!
Performed by Juan Raheem (Trade) & Raquis Da’Juan Petree (Weldon)
An older man and a younger man he met for sex online are alone somewhere in the woods. The sexually repressed older man is about to be victimized by a hustler, a thug who taunts him cruelly and intimidates him into sucking his dick. The tense turnabout ending is abrupt—and gives the title More Than a Mouthful… shocking bite.

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 Narrators:  Gregory Ford & Monte J. Wolfe

Alan Sharpe’s outstanding body of work has found a fan base that was represented at this program with evident enthusiasm. Audience engagement was off the charts. Each twist of each story line, each tightly crafted punch line, elicited audible enjoyment, astonishment, empathy, or affirmation. Sharpe said by way of introduction that twenty-five years ago he set out to create theater in a niche underrepresented on the DC stage: the black and gay experience. He has mined and mastered that story source and more. He has raised the bar for socially conscious plays that crackle with zingers, are peopled with quirky but totally believable characters, and play at a zippy pace. He’s doing something that to my knowledge no one else in town does, and Sharpe’s growing fan base seems to recognize—correctly, I think—that taken together his short small-cast plays actually contain multitudes.

Running Time: About two hours with no intermission.

Related links:
Brave Collective Soul Collective’s 9th Anniversary’s ‘More Plot Twists.’
DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘Plot Twists…’
Magic Time! A Report on ’24/7′ at African-American Collective Theater
Magic Time! ‘Good Hope Road’ (Staged Reading)
A Report From Page-to-Stage: ‘Hand Jobs’

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