Mosaic Theater Company of DC tops off its prodigious first season with an improbably romantic comedy by Liberian-American playwright Cori Thomas. It’s about people from different cultures who you would not think would fall for each other but they do. And it’s got a heart so big and embracing, so filled with the endearing humor of human connecting, that by the end you want to hug it back.
Directed by Managing Director and Producer Serge Seiden with the same genial brio he brought to the brittler Bad Jews, When January Feels Like Summer feels like sweetly comic summer stock, apolitical and unpolemic light entertainment. Yet in a profound way, Thomas’s play expresses Mosaic’s commitment “to making powerful, transformational, socially-relevant art.”
The play takes place in Harlem in the vicinity of the 157th Street subway stop. It features five characters, two of whom are African American and best friends, and two of whom are Indian immigrants and brother and sister.
We first meet homeboys Devaun and Jeron riding the subway and loudly bantering about “getting with” women. Devaun, who boasts cocksurely of his experience, is played by Jeremy Keith Hunter with delightfully antic swagger. His is a larger-than-life comic performance that keeps getting more impressive as the play goes on. Jeron looks to Devaun for dating smarts but in all other respects is brighter, and Vaughn Ryan Midder brings to the role a winning earnestness.
The story shifts to a convenience store operated by Nirmala. The shop belongs to Nirmala’s husband, but he has lain brain dead in a hospital for three years since he was shot during a robbery. Nirmala’s brother, Ishan, urges Nirmala to pull the plug, because he intends to transition and wants the life-insurance money to pay for gender-reassignment surgery. Nirmala cannot bring herself to disconnect her husband, and Lynette Rathnam plays the character’s inner conflict with stirring sensitivity. The tricky part of Ishan, who during the play becomes a woman named Indira, is embodied by Shravan Amin with persuasive empathy and grace.
The fifth character is Joe, an African American and a sanitation worker who picks up trash from the convenience store—including at one point Nirmala’s husband’s stash of porn. Inside Joe’s burly and brusque exterior is the lonely hurt of a divorcé (his ex turned out to be a drug addict). Joe takes a liking to Nirmala; he sees in her a good person he would want to be seen by. Nirmala considers herself still married and is not ready to move on, but in Jason B. McIntosh’s nuanced portrayal of Joe, she finds reason to reconsider.
As Nirmala’s and Joe’s romance unfolds, so does another bicultural liaison even more unlikely: a romance between 28-year-old Indira, her body now responding to new hormones, and 20-year-old Devaun, his libido in hormonal overdrive. Devaun sees Indira as the woman she wants to be seen as, and Indira sees Devaun as the gentleman he realizes he quite likes being seen as. In being seen, each of the characters begins life anew. There arises a piquant sexual chemistry between Devaun and Indira , and Hunter and Amin perform it with a conviction that made their first date scene a poignant high point of the play.
In an earlier scene in the hospital, Nirmala has a monologue in which she tells her husband—on the chance he can hear—how deeply it hurt her that he preferred getting off on the bodies of women in porn to ever touching hers. Besides drawing us into Nirmala’s character with stripped-bare intimacy, Rathnam’s riveting performance in the scene helps us understand Nirmala’s enormous underlying emotional longing to be seen by a man who desires her.
Not to be left out of the mix-and-matchmaking, Jeron gets a chance at a date with the Chinese-American woman he’s got a crush on. Clearly in When January Feels Like Summer, the rubric for romance is, Never mind the gap.
Desire across color lines and other societal divisors has long been an important trope in theater. Besides being intrinsically interesting, attraction that transcends such barriers can be transformative: Dramatic depictions of it can change society because witnessing it can change how people see other people—not as the other but as someone.
When January Feels Like Summer goes further: It shows characters discovering for themselves the transformative experience of being seen. It shows that gift—being beheld as one’s authentic self—enabling the characters to regift it to one another.
As uplifting and heartfelt as Thomas’s comedic script is, it takes on particular significance in the context of Mosaic’s intercultural mission at the crossroads that is H Street. One cannot imagine When January Feels Like Summer resonating with more meaning on any other stage in DC. And that ultimately is the huge-hearted, feel-good force that is Mosaic’s hilarious and healing season finale.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, with one intermission.
When January Feels Like Summer plays through June 12, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.