Rep Stage radio play ‘Ghost/Writer’ is some mind-blowing writing

Playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi mixes romance and vengeance and packs volumes of truth into stunning poetic dialog.

I approached this radio version of Dane Figueroa Edidi’s Ghost/Writer with keen anticipation. I saw a staged reading of a previous version of the play during the 2019 Womxn On Fire Festival at Keegan Theatre. It was then titled Writer’s Block and costarred Edidi and Michael Kevin Darnall. In exultation afterward I did something I rarely do: I rave-tweeted about it: “Totally blew my mind. Catch it if you can.” Naturally when I heard that Rep Stage was planning a full production of the play, revised and now called Ghost/Writer, I knew I must see it.

Then came the great shuttering, and that full staging was put on hold.

The cast of ‘Ghost/Writer’: Steve Polites and Dane Figueroa Edidi.

Pandemic necessity having been the mother of extraordinary innovation in theater, I should not have been surprised that the genius who wrote this play for the stage would reconceive it as a radio play. But what blew my mind all over again, as this time I could really listen to it closely, was the language of it—language that alchemized profound insights about racial injustice and sensuality into some of the most stunning poetic dialog I’ve ever heard.

Here for instance is Patrick, a white man, recalling his deceased Black girlfriend, Sara:

Her voice was music
That kind of rushing brass
Like a trumpet
It shook me

She was freedom
The way wind is unconcerned with the constraints of gravity

I know the definition of gravity
She taught me that definition
She taught me love

But this country
This world has a way of tearing good things from a man
Making him choose between safety and forever

The play is filled with ka-whump moments like that, passages that stir an explosion of recognition instilled by a writer who can pack volumes of truth into a single line.

The play shifts place and time dramatically in ways that would take considerable stagecraft to achieve. As a radio play, though, the beautifully written narration Edidi has given her characters, combined with evocative sound effects (by Tosin Olufolabi), serve to invite us into worlds and otherworlds and fly us through time. We are left in our mind’s eye to set the scenes and take in the story.

And what a story it is.

The play starts in Tulsa in 1920, prior to the race massacre there known as Black Wall Street. Already the Klan has been killing Black people. One of the victims was Sara, the young Black girlriend of a Irish immigrant’s son named Patrick. To avenge her murder, Patrick killed the Klansman who committed it. Now he’s a fugitive, and he seeks the help of a legendary cis Black woman named Ruby (“a Healer, an herbalist, a vigilante…ready to enact justice when justice needs a fresh set of hands”).

PATRICK: They killed more Black boys / I know they coming for me
RUBY: It’s funny how white folk can make even the most tragic things that happen to Black people about them

Into this fraught sociopathology of anti-Black race hate, Edidi introduces an intricate and improbably intimate relationship story between the wise Ruby and the rube-like Patrick. Their tense and sometimes tender exchanges are a pleasure all their own. There are often testy moments between them, as when she accuses him of cowardice for wanting to flee and he concedes she’s right:

PATRICK: I’m sorry
RUBY: You stay sorry
PATRICK: Please forgive me
RUBY: I don’t owe you shit
PATRICK: I know
(Pause)
RUBY: Wanna know what I done for my people / For every one of them white supremacist you killed I done killed twenty

Yet later, to convey their passion, there’s this lush audible stage direction:

He looks at her
And she at him
And they kiss
A Kiss of necessity
A kiss planted there just so they can make sure they remember who they are
A Kiss that would remind them there is no way to turn back

Act One establishes two engrossing themes that are in tension, both of them embodied in two fascinating characters and a page-turner of a plot: the sensuality of romance and the justice of vengeance. Act Two, which has a gobsmacking ending that I’ll not reveal, binds those themes together into an indelible parable.

It is 2019 in Baltimore, and we’re in a condo owned by a rich author and playwright named Charles. He is another white man with a problem—he’s got writer’s block—and he has turned for assistance to Rebecca (“A Black Trans woman, a secretly infamous ghost writer”). The symetry with Act One becomes more and more engaging as we learn Charles’s story of his high school sweetheart, Angelique, who appears in a flashback. She broke up with him because he wanted her to abort their pregnancy and she refused, and something horrible happened to her afterward. Rebecca coaxes Charles to disclose what that was. She says it’s necessary to get closure on his writer’s block. But she has something else in mind. Something along the lines of retributive justice.

Edidi plays Ruby, Rebecca, and Angelique, and brings to each role an inflection, emotional truth, and pride that she had to have known was in the words because she put them there. It is absolutely fascinating to hear her as if writing in the moment out loud. Patrick (with a lovely Irish lilt in his voice) and WASPy Charles are both played by Steve Polites, who navigates two complex character arcs with a range of honesty and duplicity that is extraordinary.

Danielle A. Drakes has directed this audio production with great care and flair. The result is immersive attention to authorial excellence that visual stage arts often compete for but that here the mind has all its own.

Because there are many narrative shifts of time and place in Ghost/Writer, and because of the doubling and tripling in the cast (which is intrinsic to the play), it can sometimes seem a challenge to follow all that’s going on. For that reason I recommend listening with the captioning on. That way, even if one gets momentarily lost, one can not only hear but witness the sheer brilliance of the writing.

Ghost/Writer is an aural and moral experience not to be missed.

Ghost/Writer is available on-demand until May 23, 2021. A single ticket is $15; a household ticket is $25. To purchase tickets, visit repstage.org. If you need assistance with your order, send an email to boxoffice@howardcc.edu or call 443-518-1500.

CAST
Dane Figueroa Edidi
Steve Polites

ARTISTIC TEAM
Playwright: Dane Figueroa Edidi
Director: Danielle A. Drakes
Sound Design: Tosin Olufolabi
Sound Engineer: Austin Sapp
Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zoe

Stage Manager: Ricky Ramón
Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany Ko

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John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John 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, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had 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.

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