If you’re looking for a way to exercise and embellish brain cells, buy a ticket to New Orleans – Southern Rep’s Southern Premiere of Relativity and get set for hours and hours of thinking time. Don’t worry, it’s not a five hour Long Day’s Journey into Night, but odds are you’ll contemplate the concepts of this drama for a long time after you leave the theatre.
Thought-provoking, intriguing, challenging, emotionally draining, controversial, , engaging – while I would use those words to describe the production, those are my impressions and may be far, far away from your view. That’s what I mean about brain exercise. Cassandra Medley’s drama appeals to or annoys its audience on an individual basis, according to your frame of reference.
Relativity revolves around a dilemma. Should Kalima, a young super-star scientist, hold fast to DNA scientific principles based on fact and proof, or should she support her family’s historical beliefs that African-Americans are the superior race because of the melanin in their skin? The dilemma deepens, however, beyond the science versus culture controversy. Medley’s outstanding script presents issues ranging from family loyalties to romance, from office politics to cloning, and from reverse racism to interracial dating.
The complex script is award winning, but needs human voice and action to bring its crisp, to-the-point scenes to fulfillment. The Southern Rep cast and crew did just that.
Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe’s direction demonstrates versatility and command of Medley’s Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Science & Technology Project commissioned play. Working with five experienced principles, she presents stress between mother and daughter, lovers, boss and protégé in both subtle and obvious movements. The interaction between lead scientist Iris Preston, played by Sharon London, and Kalima, played by Donna Duplantier, is not only critical to plot development but also highlights individual furies. While scenes change from laboratory to office, for example, the two women move as if facing off in a boxing ring with hands clenched and unwavering eye contact. Even with the lights dimmed, you see respect and uncertainty between the two women as Kalima’s dilemma is about to be voiced.
A highlight of the production, for me, is a transitional scene, which depicts Kalima exchanging dialogue with her mother and her boss. Kalima moves back and forth center stage, answering one while standing in front of the other, Cooper-Anifowoshe draws you into the elevating tension as a daughter tries to please her mother and maintain her professional reputation.
In scenes depicting a Melanin Institute Conference, Cooper-Anifowoshe utilizes Southern Rep facilities and seating layout to engage the audience in a near interactive experience.
In addition to family, culture and science issues, Relativity is also about strong women taking charge in their professional and personal lives. Duplantier, London and Troi Bechet, who plays Kalima’s mother Claire, execute their roles with expertise and precision in complement with each other. Duplantier and Bechet’s lines may be the highpoints of the drama’s script and vital to illustrate the family loyalty dilemma, but London’s performance is the one to see. Her presentation as a highly respected African-American female scientist is credible and consistent. She physically crumbles in dismay when young Black students negate scientific theories, reflecting her flexibility.
On-stage throughout most of the production, Duplantier is formidable in a demanding role, but is much better in the lab scenes than when confronting her co-worker lover and family. Perhaps the drop in performance is intended to show Kalima’s allegiance to her profession is stronger than her personal life. It does work, however, and does not detract from a solid performance.
Similarly, I found Bechet more believable as director of the Melanin Institute than as Kalima’s mother. Her early-morning jogging scene and her mere stroll while eating a candy bar, provides a touch of humor just when the drama needs it and another glimpse of Bechet’s range.
Lance Nichols, who plays Claire’s partner and Trey Burvant as white-guy and Kalima’s guy, are adequate in necessary-to-the-plot supporting roles. Both add a touch of comedy to the show with Nichols’ occasional sly smile to the audience presenting another dilemma - is he or isn’t he a true believer of the power of melanin?
The technical aspects of the show are super. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set, rotating in and out of a wall of “concrete” blocks, is colorful and functional without detracting from the action or actors’ movements. Maya Ciarrocchi’s projection design offers an interesting enhancement to Melanin Institute conferences, with slides depicting slavery and Nazi atrocities.
If you see Relativity, forget about anything you know, feel or think about race, reverse racism, career, cloning, or family loyalties. Start fresh and let the play initiate new ideas and your own dilemmas. Kalima’s question of imagining the day when you are able to “grow your own heart?” ends the play. It’s a good question to begin thinking about your future and your current dilemmas.
Back Row Facts:
Length of play – two hours and 15 minutes.
Language and Lewd Factor – a sprinkling of the f-word, which is not really necessary and could be offensive to some.
Family fitness - mature daughters and mothers may benefit from seeing this show together. Not for little kids. This would be a good first production to introduce Science majors to the world of Liberal Arts.
It’s a puzzlement! Why not more from the drummers?