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Review: ‘Marcus/Emma’ at InterAct Theatre Company

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Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman were known for their stirring, provocative speeches. But I doubt that, in any of her speeches, Goldman ever said anything as provocative as “Solidarity is sexy! Yeah!” Or that Garvey ever pointed to himself and said “You can’t deport this. You can’t deport this raw sex power.”

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Mary Tuomanen’s play Marcus/Emma is a fantasia in which Garvey (1887-1940), the black nationalist leader who advocated for African Americans to return to the land of their ancestors, meets Goldman (1869-1940), the anarchist who advocated the destruction of the capitalist system. But if you’re expecting this to be like the old Steve Allen TV series Meeting of Minds, where historical figures sit around a table and politely argue their points, you’re in for a surprise.

Yes, Garvey and Goldman do debate a lot, but Marcus/Emma takes their discord in an irreverent and shocking direction.

Despite their shared mass appeal, as Goldman says at one point, “We are not on the same side.” Early in the play, when Goldman turns to the audience and tells them “You are slaves,” Garvey angrily argues with her that the people are anything but slaves. When Goldman angrily says “Not everything is about race,” Garvey laughs hysterically. “OK, go ahead, say it again!” he says, unable to control his laughter.

As the play continues, both of them discuss their ideas seriously and in detail. But when she makes a point, he ruthlessly tears it apart, and vice versa. They goad each other. When he sits down to write a serious essay, she crumbles up pieces of paper and throws them at him. When she tries to distract him, he says “I won’t let you win.”

Eventually the anger becomes especially passionate, and then that passion take a different turn.

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Tuomanen’s play is deliberately unsettling. With its lewd language and nudity, it may shock some theatergoers. But others may find that Tuomanen’s outrageous mixture is, at its best, hilarious and bracing. Marcus and Emma share a highly charged – and highly outlandish – sexuality.

Tuomanen is having fun with language and imagery, and the play doesn’t take that language and imagery seriously. In some ways, what we see is a physical representation the commingling of ideas. And as the balance of power switches back and forth in these arguments, we see that represented physically, too.

Actors Susan Riley Stevens and Akeem Davis don’t hold anything back. Her aggressiveness and earthiness makes for a strong contrast with his stately bearing. They make for an unlikely, yet well-matched, couple.

Rebecca Wright’s fast-moving direction builds the tension between the two performers effectively; we understand what attracts them and what repels them. Sara Outing’s set design is dominated by a scaffold that serves as both a place to speak out and a place to hide. And Maria Shaplin’s lighting effectively delineates the various scenes, making the actors seem isolated at key points.

Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman were troublemakers. And so is Tuomanen. Her fiery, forceful play is a reminder of why this world needs its troublemakers.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Susan Riley Stevens and Akeem Davis. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Susan Riley Stevens and Akeem Davis. Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3 Photography.

Marcus/Emma plays through February 12, 2017 at InterAct Theatre Company, performing at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 568-8079, or purchase them online.

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