2018 Capital Fringe Review: ‘America’s Wives’

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A main point of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the oppression of people of color in the U.S. cannot be explained as a matter of mean-spirited bigots lashing out at African-Americans or Latinos.  Structural racism, deeply embedded in the economy, the criminal justice apparatus, and other social systems is far more dangerous and far harder to excise. This point might largely escape a viewer of America’s Wives (written by Farah Lawal Harris, directed by Jared Shamberger), an allegory of American race relations, in which that oppression is represented by the white, entitled, callous, mean-spirited, greedy, bigoted Mallory/lyale (Karen Novack).

The allegory is set in motion by the trickster Bald Eagle (Louis E. Davis), who presides over the dual marriage of Mallory/lyale and Olayemi/lyawo (Billie Krishawn) to America, conceived as an absent and abusive husband, symbolizing that all are bound together for good or ill. America’s male privilege is ever-present behind the scenes, but the foreground is initially occupied by Mallory/lyale’s domination and exploitation of Olayemi/lyawo, the allegorical representative of people of color.

Then Bald Eagle intervenes, changing the women’s fates in keeping with their respective reactions to his snatching of a child from each of them. Olayemi/lyawo’s reaction to being separated from her child by a force beyond her control is particularly resonant nowadays.

Krishawn’s performance is magnetic; she seems to be an actor who can vocally and physically dominate a scene at will.  Her reading of a “victim impact statement” at the trial of her antagonist is particularly compelling, as is her story of her striving, hard-working, immigrant parents.

Davis embodies the cleverness, charm, manipulativeness, and capacity for evil of a classic trickster figure. He has a strong moment breaking the fourth wall, challenging the audience with its own complicity in wrongdoing. Novack hits her marks as entitled, mean-spirited etc., with commendable energy; the script does not allow more.

The lighting and sound designs are straightforward and effective.  The most interesting part of the technical production is the series of baby bundle props that Bald Eagle tosses to the two women from his tower perch. Shamberger’s direction keeps the pace moving smartly and keeps the focus where it belongs at a given moment.

In his program notes, Shamberger speaks of the “dichotomy” of his “complicated and nuanced” relationship with America.  In hers, Harris speaks of America feeling like an “abusive husband who loves me some days and denies my humanity on others.”  The ambivalence and nuance they speak of does not fully translate into the written and performed play, which – particularly in the person of Mallory/lyale – presents as a stark indictment of America’s nearly unmitigated wrongfulness. A less schematic approach to the allegory might have increased the play’s dramatic impact.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

America’s Wives plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th St SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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