Southern Rep finishes off its first season back since Katrina struck in 2005 with a thought-provoking, exciting new play. Relativity, by playwright and professor Cassandra Medley, is a reachable drama with a dynamic cast. Imagine a popular idea that one race is genetically superior to another: it sounds preposterous, but sell it right and you can have the masses eating out of your hand. If the premise is a bit fictitious, it is not certainly far-fetched – people don’t always need hard-line evidence to believe a convenient theory.
In Relativity, Claire Reed (Troi Bechet) and her husband Malik (Lance Nichols) are the smooth-selling populist preachers of an unproven melanin theory. Melanated people – people with high levels of melanin, chiefly of African descent, are genetically superior to non-melanated people (Caucasians) -- intellectually, athletically, and physically. Claire and Malik have been selling this theory to black Americans for thirty years with impassioned and motivational speaking.
Claire’s daughter Kalima, a promising doctor working in a top research lab, joins her mother and stepfather on stage at the annual Melanin conference. Kalima, who is the heir apparent to her mother’s organization, is at odds with her mother’s beliefs. Kalima is rational, firmly rooted in scientific practices, but her mother firmly believes in her own hype. Kalima doesn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings, nor ruin her legacy, so the play sets up an interesting struggle between science and popular thought.
To add to the conflicted feelings, Claire does not believe that these two societies – melanated and non-melanated – should intermix. Kalima doesn’t have the heart to tell her mother that her new boyfriend Dan (Trey Burvant) is white. Dan and Kalima are both doctors at the same lab, working on advancements in cloning technology -- cloning organs for transplant from embryonic cells. If they succeed, radical changes in genetics can take place – it won’t matter who has a weaker heart or lung, genetic technology can ensure that a new and better heart awaits you.
At the lab, Kalima and Dan are introduced to their new supervisor, Dr. Iris Preston (Sharon London), a prominent researcher, member of the Federation of African Americans in Science, and staunch vocal critic of Kalima’s mother and her theories. You can sense the dramatic tension building in the play. By the second act, the conflicts boil over into an explosive first scene – hinging upon the internal conflicts Kalima faces in choosing her career in science (with a great mentor like Dr. Preston) or choosing her mother. The scene plays out with Kalima having simultaneous arguments with both women – it makes for riveting theatre. Claire doesn’t need scientific proof to believe that melanated people are gifted. She has charts and books written by colleagues that are all the proof she needs. She reminds her daughter that “[black] history is not past tense,” and that her profession is “the same science that deemed [black] people three-fifths human.”
Will Kalima choose the rational world of Science? She is driven by desire, ambition and drive, just as Iris is, but will she have to “disown” her own family because of their radical unproven beliefs? This major struggle strains nearly all the relationships within Relativity, including Dan and Kalima, who are vying for the same promotion under Iris’ leadership.
As with the other productions at Southern Rep this season, the cast couldn’t be better suited to their roles. Donna Duplantier has the depth of feeling required for a part such as Kalima. Having to straddle the divide of popular beliefs and science, and being the catalyst for nearly all the action in the play, Duplantier is successful in making this fictitious conflict seem real and important. Troi Bechet, always a delight to watch on stage, plays the mother well. Sharing the stage with Bechet is Lance Nichols, who along with Bechet realistically creates the popular mythology of Melanin theory as if it were a religious revival meeting – all spectacle, smoke and mirrors, desperately trying to empower others in their race to rise up and empower themselves to greater victories. Sharon London is fiery as Iris. Played by anyone with less skill, it could easily turn into the tough but fair doctor character seen so often in films and television these days. But London goes well above the stereotype, and is incandescent in her second act monologue, a talk given at Iris’ Alma Mater that turns into a mental breakdown and crisis of faith, one of the many exciting moments in this play. Trey Burvant plays a somewhat nerdy doctor effectively, though the onstage chemistry between Dan and Iris starts off tepidly, it quickly boils to an exciting climax, especially in the second act.
One of the joys of attending theatre at Southern Rep lately has been the excellent production values. The minimalistic and inventive set design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is a joy to watch as it pivots and reveals realistic settings, hidden by textured white paneling. Flanked on either side by twisting, colorful double helixes, they serve to remind us that Science is always a part of our lives, whether we choose to believe in it or not. Also notice how the rotating apartment unit’s planked flooring matches perfectly to the stage deck below. Attention is in the details, and no detail has been left unnoticed. The scenic design happily reminds me of Allen Moyer’s designs for The Little Dog Laughed, which played on Broadway this season. Martin Sachs’ lighting and Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections effectively enhance the minimalist surroundings. Even better is director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe’s crisp staging, down to the scene changes – every moment has meaning. Michelle Bohn’s contemporary costumes show both the humdrum life of Dan and Kalima at home in casual wear to the vibrant African inspired costumes Claire and Malik wear during the National Melanin Conference. And one can’t forget to mention the authentic African drumming of Luther Gray and Kenyata Simon, who provide the galloping pulse of Relativity, keeping it moving at a clipped pace.
Congratulations to Southern Rep on a triumphant return this season. Be sure to take note of the variety and breadth of new plays presented on their stage, both this past season, and in the one to come. With works by major contemporary playwrights John Patrick Shanley, Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl and Eric Coble, New Orleanians will have the opportunity to experience a broad range of plays in the coming year, reaffirming my belief that the arts scene in New Orleans is more diverse, vibrant and important now than it ever was.
Relativity, by Cassandra Medley
at Southern Rep Theatre
Now through June 24
Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Produced by Southern Rep Theatre
With Donna Duplantier, Troi Bechet, Lance Nichols, Sharon London, Trey Burvant
Luther Gray and Kenyata Simon, Drummers
Set Design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay
Lighting and Sound Design by Martin Sachs
Costume Design by Michelle Bonn
Projection Design by Maya Ciarrocchi
Properties Design by Evan Prizant
Stage Manager: Michelle Kelleher
Assistant Stage Mangager: Lindy Bruns