Conceptually, the phenomenon seems gigantic; as experienced, it turns out to be pleasant and startlingly, almost joyously, slight. Ensemble Studio Theatre, producers of the annual Marathon that, for decades, has sustained New York’s interest in the one-act play, has partnered with Going to the River, an offshoot organization founded to support women writers of color, to produce a pair of evenings, in alternating repertory, containing 14 one-act plays. In effect, The River Crosses Rivers is a second Marathon, dedicated exclusively to the art of nonwhite women who write plays.
You would think that such an assemblage might offer, in addition to its wide variety of themes and styles, a broad challenge to our theater’s business as usual, expecting the sum of these assembled voices to add up to some distinct statement about the condition of American life that would definitely not resemble the comparatively complacent image of that life our resident theaters normally convey. But you would be surprised, perhaps even a little disappointed. The single most interesting aspect of Rivers is how often these two seven-play evenings resemble standard marathons—not only in their mixture of good and bad, realism and stylization, stark seriousness and sketch comedy, but also in their general contentment with the way things are in America. Admittedly, both bills are peppered with plays that confront grim issues, and the playwrights don’t dilute their sense of the issues’ significance. Granted, too, the focus on women and female experiences is stronger here than in the usual fare at such events—though not all that much so.
Both Program A and Program B offer, for instance, versions of the adultery play that you find on almost every Marathon bill. Program B actually has two, though in one, the adultery turns out to be imaginary. In each case, the adulterous spouse is the husband, but this is commonly true even when such plays are written by males; the best one I can recall, from a Marathon four or five years ago, by David Mamet, left its male character’s ego in shreds that would make a vindictive feminist gloat. In both J.e. Franklin’s Hot Methuselah (Program B) and N.N. Ewing’s Angels in the Parking Lot (Program A), in contrast, the peccant husbands are instead let off the hook. Both plays, interestingly, feature exaggerated but extremely amusing performances. Brenda Pressley and Peter Jay Fernandez go through contortions in Ewing’s play that you think couldn’t be topped for excess in stage performance—until you see Vinie Burrows’s antics as the enraged wife in Franklin’s play, with every excessive gesture drawing louder laughs.
P.J. Gibson’s Jesse (Program B), the third “adultery” play—I put the theme in quotes here, since it morphs into something else—uses the familiar setup to touch, gently, on a less familial issue: the fear of violent intrusions into the home. The touch is faint, and Gibson’s setup over-elaborate, but the point is nicely caught in Lydia Fort’s taut direction. Her actors, Maya Lynne Robinson and Christopher Burris, are among the few in the two evenings who don’t go overboard.
Two other plays, in which the violent outside world impinges on family life, push the theme further—both productions sometimes, regrettably, push their actors too far as well. Cori Thomas’s strong, intriguing His Daddy (Program B) shows the white father and black stepfather of a biracial child battling each other while they struggle to deal with the horrifying circumstances of his death. In France-Luce Benson’s Risen From the Dough (Program A), two Haitian-American sisters, one rapidly assimilating and one resolutely alienated, bicker in their small bakeshop on the anniversary of the older sister’s husband’s death. Ruby Dee’s The Step-Mother (Program A) moves inward rather than outward, focusing on emotional withholding between the title character and her stepdaughter; Carmen de Lavallade’s stern, quietly acerbic performance makes it grip.
But such new angles on familiar stories are the minority here. Program A offers the inevitable scene of old-style parents sparring with the independent-minded daughter who resists old-style marriage, via Naveen Bahar Choudhury’s often droll The Kitchen, or 91/2 Minutes of Subcontinental Absurdity. The references may be South Asian and the finale pure Bollywood, but the routine has been worked by every newly arrived ethnic minority since Irish and Jewish comics first exploited its humors in vaudeville over a century ago. Ionesco’s sensibility and sexual liberation abet its new Indian spicing here, and extra coriander comes from Sakina Jaffrey’s performance as the mother, demurely oblivious to the earthquake-level bedlam exploding around her. Mrinalini Kamath’s Sloppy Second Chances (Program B), the event’s inevitable first-date play, doesn’t even have the ethnic spice: Its two South Asian youngsters, paired by an Internet dating service and getting along so badly in Starbucks, might come from any ethnic group in town—or from a playwright of either gender.
Each bill, inevitably, offers one inconsequential oddity. Desi Moreno-Penson’s Spirit Sex (Program B) pairs a human guy with a ghostly female satyr; Kara Lee Corthron’s Ladybug Gonna Getcha pits an East Village grunge-rock wannabe against both her duplicitous manager and Blondie. Program A also proffers what used to be known in Broadway revues as a “charm number,” Bridgette Wimberly’s Rally, in which a survivor of the ’60s civil-rights battles (appealingly played by Venida Evans) shares some Obama joy with her granddaughter. Program B’s Truth Be Told, by Melody Cooper, tackles a grave issue—the perils of female journalists in the Third World—in a hortatory, bang-you-over-the-head way.
For the dramatic substance that gives each bill distinction, you must wait, in both cases, nearly to the end. Lynn Nottage’s Banana Beer Bath (Program A), a monologue played with stunning exactitude by Elain Graham, describes a near-miraculous rescue, darkened by bitter grief, with the seemingly artless straightforwardness of a folk tale. Kia Corthron’s more self-consciously cunning Dialectic, which closes Program B, postulates a debate, in the afterlife, between an abortion-clinic client and an anti-abortion terrorist. Don’t, in either case, expect predictability. In playwriting as in other arts, it’s not ethnicity or gender but imaginative power that breaks the routine.