In Bo-Nita — playing one more weekend in Boro Park presented by 1st Stage — Terri Weagant gives a dazzling solo performance of a mesmerizing script. Weagant displays a commitment to the given circumstances of the characters she portrays that is awe-inspiring and humbling. Awe-inspiring because despite the fact that these are not nice or likable people and their circumstances are dire and distasteful, Weagant does not put any distance between them and herself. She dives right in and embraces these people. By doing this she also eliminates any distance we might want to place between ourselves as audience and these people. Her commitment is humbling because our American society has produced these people and the circumstances they have to deal with. And we, the audience, when we judge these folks — and I was tempted to judge them at many moments throughout the length of the play — are really only judging ourselves and what we, as a society, have allowed to happen to this country.
Playwright Elizabeth Heffron and Weagant take us inside the soul, mind, spirit, and skin of 13-year-old Bo-Nita as she navigates the world of a poor/working-class white girl in 21st century America. There is no small amount of “j’accuse!” in the narrative Heffron delivers: What “white privilege” does one enjoy and what does family mean when you and your people are only commodities to your society and every encounter you have that should be a human(e) exchange winds up being a commercial transaction? What is a child worth and what do we expect a child to become in this crucible of capitalism? Weagant’s Bo-Nita holds the audience firmly in the light of that accusation with her brazen adolescent gaze.
When we meet Bo-Nita, she is rapping/singing to herself and dancing, clapping her body rhythmically in a self-comforting way that distressed people sometimes do. She throws some punches at the air. It is not an unfamiliar sight to most urban folk. And it is a little unnerving. We don’t know what she will do. Then she starts talking to us about the importance of knowing and maintaining your own rhythm, and she tells us about the first of a number of “miracles” that she has experienced. In the course of this “miracle,” her 300-pound, “semi-ex-stepfather” has raised his fist and is about to begin pummeling her for teasing him about his probable sexual incompetence. And suddenly he begins having a heart attack. This turn of events allows Bo-Nita to turn the tables and begin pummeling him. And that is how he ends up dead and bloody on her bedroom floor. When Bo-Nita’s mother suddenly arrives home with her afternoon sex partner (who is receiving sexual favors from her in a casual exchange for some home improvement work the family needs), she quickly devises a plan to get rid of the body. And that’s when the plot, with its twists as delirious and breathless as a Pedro Almodóvar film, really takes off. In another era and in other hands this might have been called a “madcap” comedy. Here it would be more accurately characterized as tragedy that, as Langston Hughes notes, is not without laughter.
Weagant and her director create a fully inhabited world using the minimum. The set is a platform, empty except for a generic bench. On that bench and platform, the audience travels to numerous locations seamlessly. The only prop is the ubiquitous backpack every child carries to school or daycare. In a couple of highly evocative scenes, that backpack becomes the face of Bo-Nita’s “semi-ex-stepfather” that is being pummeled, and in another, it is that same “semi-ex-stepfather’s” head at the end of his heavy body as it is being lifted and manipulated in preparation for removal, before the pack finally regains its role as a bland, innocuous container for the child’s daily needs. The actress juggles accents and body postures to give us five distinctly and flamboyantly desperate people we won’t soon forget.
This production is being presented outside in the newly developed Boro Park in Tysons, Virginia (a very short walk from the Greensboro Metro stop). Having the performance outdoors allows audiences the space needed for safe COVID spacing in a way that feels more celebratory than deprived. Even though the performance venue is in a space where there are children on scooters, and cars honking and all the soundscape of a state fair midway, the sound design by Rew Tippin keeps the actress’s speech and every body-blow and automobile screech of the play we’re watching vividly centered in our attention.
Director Summer Wallace and Lighting Designer Elliot Shugoll keep our eyes focused and help contain the potentially undefined space. Wallace deftly balances the absurdity, cruelty, and poignancy of the events of the play so that they are watchable: the audience is able to sit and bear witness to these often painful and grotesque events in Bo-Nita’s life without becoming despondent themselves. And despite the objective harshness of the things that this child experiences, the audience finds itself laughing sometimes. We can’t help ourselves.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission
Bo-Nita — part of the Logan Festival of Solo Performance presented by 1st Stage — plays through September 26, 2021, outdoors in Boro Park at The Boro Tysons, 8350 Broad St, Tysons, VA (Silver Hill Drive and Broad Street). Tickets ($20, general admission; $15, military) can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.
Written by Elizabeth Heffron
Directed by Summer Wallace
Bo-Nita: Terri Weagant
Artistic Director: Alex Levy
Sound Designer: Rew Tippin
Stage Manager: Kaitlyn De Litta
Associate Artistic Director Deidra Lawan Starnes
Lighting Designer: Elliot Shugoll
Technical Crew: Joseph Brown Miller, Ash Jeffers
1st Stage announces live theater lineup, outdoors and in (season announcement)