Tonight I entered the theatre to see a double bill of plays that I knew would challenge me – and I did so with a tinge of trepidation. After all, as a white man raised in middle-class rural privilege, I have been cautious around the conversation about race, especially in the last several years. I have learned that there is so much I don’t know or understand about so many things, especially what it’s like to live outside of whiteness. And even though – as a therapist – I specialize in empathy, I’ve grossly been underexposed to cultures outside of my own therefore making it almost impossible to understand what’s it like to be black in America – both then and now.
Then: Betty Daniels (“Samantha Russell”) recalls what it was like to be a “freedom rider” in the south in the 1960s. This is something I’m woefully ignorant about. In this remarkable new play from Isaiah Reaves called “I Shall Not Be Moved,” we learn just a tiny part of what it was like to face significant and real danger in the name of what matters.
Now: Based on the writings of Kathy Y. Wilson, Torie Wiggins takes the stage as “Your Negro Tour Guide” and pulls no punches in frank discussions of race, sex, justice, and humanity. (She also directed “I Shall Not Be Moved.”)
Both are remarkable plays and could have been produced, marketed, and sold individually without any issue. But D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre, again demonstrates creativity and vision by producing a double-bill of these two solo plays. In her curtain speech, she mentioned that one thing that COVID did allow was the commissioning of new and updated works, which these shows are.
Reaves wrote his piece about his grandmother, telling her story while expressing his own voice through the writing. Reaves, all of twenty-four years old (as of a few weeks ago), has been writing plays since he was 11 years old. At 16, he had his first production in the Clifton Performance Theatre; I wrote his first review. (I think you’ll find that both of us have developed as writers since then.) Now, a graduate student in one of America’s most prestigious playwrighting graduate programs, his voice has matured without losing the individuality that has always made him special.
Wiggins (and creative partner Jeff Griffin) adapted the works of Wilson many years ago, but together they have all updated the script to make it as contemporary as anything on stage. “Your Negro Tour Guide” is not for the faint of heart; I think some of the older white people near me were shellshocked, if not outright offended, by some of the content. That’s precisely the point, I think.
Despite not reviewing as much theatre this season (though I’ve missed it so . . . we’ll see what next season looks like) I felt compelled to write something about these shows. Mostly because they are terrific. And because people need to see and experience them. But I am hesitant to speak about their content, precisely because of my white ignorance. I want to tread lightly and speak as honestly as possible without stepping into something that I’ll regret or that would be hurtful – or even just stupid. So, let me say this: Reaves’s show has inspired me to learn more about the history of freedom riders and black rights in American history. Not just the bullet points from my high school textbooks, but the real stories of the real people who were so brave and risked everything. And sometimes lost everything, too.
And “Your Negro Tour Guide” reminds me that we still have a long way to go. Wilson is an aggressive writer who pulls no punches and says what she thinks, no matter who is upset by it. I like that. But it’s uncomfortable. Wiggins has the charm and talent to make the work accessible to a general audience but does so without compromising any of the beliefs or words (and there are a lot!) Wilson espouses. She’s funny, transformative on stage, and infinitely engaging.
I need to mention the incredible acting of Samantha Russell, too. As I said, Reaves writes in a specific (and elegant) voice; Russell channels it at her core. As a former ETC intern, Russell has worked on this stage before. But she’s now living in London and returned for this part. And we are better off for it. She is spunky, firey – just like I imagine the real-life Betty to be, even now in her 80s. Russell is vulnerable and tough and scared and emotional and . . . awesome for the entire hour and ten-minute performance.
To memorize an hour-long script, to perform it without any safety net, no scene partner is one of the most challenging things an actor can do. And yet, here we have these two sensational actresses bringing us this difficult and well-written material – night after night.
Of course, the technical elements are top-notch. It’s Ensemble Theatre; it’s always first class. The direction keeps both shows moving around the stage. The music underneath the action sets the tone. The sound, lighting, costumes, and props are all stellar. It takes a team to support a solo performer at this level.
It’s great theatre. But it’s important theatre. Emerging voices like Isaiah Reaves’ and tireless voices like Kathy Y. Wilson’s are essential to making world-changing art.
And that’s what these shows are. It’s a doubly great night of theatre!
“I SHALL NOT BE MOVED” and “YOUR NEGRO TOUR GUIDE” run through May 7th at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Tickets are available here.