2018 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Sobriety of Fear’

Rarely have I witnessed an actor so intimately inhabit distinct other selves and so fluidly transcend boundaries of gender and generation.

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Count Shaun Michael Johnson among the stunning new talents to be discovered at Capital Fringe. His solo show, Sobriety of Fear, is a tour-de-force of empathic acting. With breathtaking emotional transparency, he portrays four characters: a gentle four-year-old boy, Rudy; his mother Asha, a battered wife; Leroy, the abusive father and husband; and the violent man who was Leroy’s father. Rarely have I witnessed an actor so intimately inhabit distinct other selves and so fluidly transcend boundaries of gender and generation.

Moreover, Johnson wrote the script—a riveting story about domestic violence that rings so true it could have happened exactly this way in real life. (So: trigger warning for anyone to whom it actually did happen.)

The promotional graphic for ‘Sobriety of Fear.’ It looks cryptically abstract but once you see the show it’s not. From left to right that’s an angry man, a frightened boy, and an abused woman.

The unprepossessing venue is a meeting room in a church, and Director Mediombo Singo Fofana has kept the staging simple. A chair beneath which are concealed some props. A few circumspect sound and light cues. And one consummate actor commanding our attention as he steadily draws us into a disturbingly credible story.

Playwright/Performer Shaun Michael Johnson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The narrative is not a new one. Its outlines will be familiar to anyone with knowledge about DV. The couple fall deliriously in love. When she becomes pregnant he begins drinking heavily and becomes controlling. The man beats her in front of the child. The boy is helpless to intercede and save her…  (That’s not a spoiler alert about the play so much as the master plot of patriarchy at home.)

But what Johnson has done with this narrative is so original I cannot recall seeing a performance like it. In his shifts from point of view to point of view, it is as if Johnson shows us each character’s unfiltered soul. Plus as playwright Johnson has set for himself some traps that as actor he evades with crazy ease. The boy is not played cutesy. The mother is not a female-impersonation cartoon. The father is not a cardboard caricature. Johnson delivers the real deal, over and over, shifting between characters with grace and surpassing understanding. For instance, there’s a point at which Ayesha reaches out her arms in duress and before our eyes they become the joyous upstretched arms of the boy. Johnson’s transition from one to the other is so seamless it feels like an anatomical/emotional cross-melt.

To be honest, the title of the show is inscrutable. But absolutely everything else is not. If you care about acting, if you care about violence against women, if you care about whether men can have the guts to get it, see Sobriety of Fear.

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Sobriety of Fear plays through July 28, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.