Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Through Our Eyes FestivalExposed Brick Theatre
Freeing Assata depicts 1970s-era radical Black activist Assata Shakur during her imprisonment after being charged with the first-degree murder of a New Jersey state police officer in 1973. Playwright Miller shows Shakur being held in miserable quarters at a New Jersey women's penitentiary, taunted and threatened by the white prison warden and being refused medical care–including while pregnant–and losing the right to meet with her attorney, as punishment for unruly behavior. To be fair, such horrible treatment would push anyone to act out, but Shakur did her part to provoke her captor.
Shakur seeks and finds comfort by calling on her ancestor spirits. Three women dressed in white appear in her mind. Intense, evocative dance and vocalization–to the beat of an onstage drummer–invoke the strengths of her lineage, spark the courage of her forbearers, and ignite her power borne of her Black ancestry. This provides a balance for the despair that underscores her rage against the white supremacist system that has shackled her. The three ancestor spirits briefly become the medical professionals who deliver her baby and protect it from the warden's wrath. Returning to spirit form, they enable Shakur to escape and find the liberation for which she has cried out.
Ninchai Nok-Chiclana gives a powerhouse performance as Assata Shakur, bringing forth the fire and rage that animated this revolutionary to life, while maintaining an essential dignity. The three ancestor spirits–played by Jamaka T. Davis, Inayah El-Amin and Valencia Proctor–each take on a distinctive personality, evoking different facets of Shakur's roots, and their dancing is fantastic, the most engaging aspect of the entire evening. As the brutal warden, Marci Lucht is a bit of a stock character, the monstrous jailer who takes pleasure in robbing their captives of their humanity. Of course, through Shakur's eyes, that's exactly what the warden is, and there may be much truth in her perception. Director Simone Williams imbues the piece with a sense of urgency, with Shakur seeming increasingly in danger, either at the hands of her captor or her own mental deterioration. Yhantê Williams costume designs and Mitchell Frazier's foreboding light design adds greatly to the work's potency.
However, Freeing Assata is surprisingly brief, about 35 minutes, and suffers for its brevity. We see Shakur's humiliation, her reclaiming her inborn power and her escape, with no context provided. The warden berates Shakur for gunning down a state trooper and that is all we know about her incarceration. We have no sense of the significance Assata Shakur had in the Black liberation movement of the early 1970s. There is no clue that she was a leader of the Black Liberation Army, a radical group that modeled themselves on the Viet Cong, using violent force to achieve their aims, nor that between 1971 and 1973 Shakar was charged six times for crimes including murder, assault, kidnapping, and armed robbery. The magnitude of her notoriety reveals the broad stage on which Shakur acted, and why her trial and imprisonment would be of keen significance to law enforcers.
Likewise, we are told nothing about her actual escape, though we might suppose it involved more than the incantations of ancestors' spirits. In fact, it happened with the aid of three armed comrades in 1979, two years after her conviction. Shakur lived as a fugitive for several years and in 1984 was granted asylum in Cuba. In 2005, 32 years after the turnpike shootings, the FBI classified her as a domestic terrorist, with a reward of one million dollars for assistance in her capture.
If the playwright's intent is to create a brief fantasia regarding conditions, both real and hallucinatory, under which Black women endured and escaped imprisonment, he has succeeded. The play convincingly depicts emotional and mental fury driven by racial polarization and inhumane prison conditions in the 1970s (which is not to presume they are much improved today). But that is as far as Freeing Assata takes us. It offers no bridge to the larger story of race struggles, and does not inspire one to further action. With no sense of the before or the after, the play is simply a snapshot of intense anger and suffering relieved by a source of inborn strength. It does this very well but could be so much more, and with that, more impactful.
A Love Story in 8 Scenes, by Siddeeqah Shabazz, has an altogether different feel. It is a naturalistic two-hander that maps the arc of the relationship between teenage Memo and Ihsan who meet when Memo moves into the house next door to Ihsan at the start of summer break. Both are young Black women but with quite different backgrounds. Memo was born female but identifies as queer, using "they/them" pronouns. Also, Memo's parents are white. Her family has moved often, making it hard for her to form lasting ties. Ihsan is part of a traditional Muslim family and is very settled in her community, where she has many friends.
The summer months give Memo and Ihsan plenty of time to build upon the spark that ignites between them at first sight, outside the constraints of the larger community. They develop an intense friendship which, despite Ihsan's profound reservations, becomes a romance. During the evolution of their relationship the supremely self-aware Memo takes the lead, serving as a guide into unknown territories for the inexperienced and uncertain Ihsan. However, their vastly different lives and cultural roots cannot be easily set aside, especially as summer nears its end and school looms ahead.
Playwright Siddeeqah Shabazz has given the play a simple narrative framework, giving voice to both of these appealing teens, as they together step gingerly along a path that seems all but inevitable. They compare one another over such differences as chosen music idol–Memo's is Miley Cyrus, Ihsan's is Taylor Swift–finding common ground within their differences. Their reflections show mature introspection, especially for Ihsan, who is breaking new and unexpected ground, as when she says about her first kiss, "it was nothing like I expected, and everything I've always wanted."
A Love Story in 8 Scenes benefits from two strong performances. As Ihsan, Tazrae Jemeli Song'ony presents Ihsan at first as the softer of the pair, conveying a naivete about the unexpected turns her life is taking, though in the end she shows the strength to face a difficult choice she never imagined having to make. Valencia Proctor establishes Memo's sheen of self-confidence, bravado, and forthright nature that later folds in on itself to reveal her vulnerabilities. The give and take between the two actors and their characters feels authentic and is quite moving. Mitchell Frazier's lighting reflects the play's mood shifts, and Jada LaFrance contributes effective sound design to the production.
Both plays presented in Through Our Eyes Festival have compelling points to make. Of the two, Freeing Assata takes a larger story grounded in historical events but narrows the focus so sharply that it feels slight, despite being beautifully realized. A Love Story in 8 Scenes is a smaller, more intimate story, but more fully developed so that it has resonance on a larger canvas, representing how our individual biographies impact choices which become the warp and weft that form the fabric of society. Both are worthy endeavors and deserving of further development.
Freeing Assata and A Love Story in 8 Scenes, two one act plays at Exposed Brick Theatre's Through Our Eyes Festival, runs through September 18, 2022, at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Through Our Eyes Festival also includes workshops and performances for children. Tickets are on a sliding scale, from $0.00 to $20.00. For tickets and information, please visit exposedbricktheatre.com.
Playwrights: Freeing Assata written by Sterling Miller, A Love Story in 8 Scenes written by Siddeeqah Shabazz; Director: Simone Williams; Assistant Director: Simone Abraham; Original Music: Umar Malik; Costume Design (Freeing Assata): Yhantê Williams; Lighting Design: Mitchell Frazier; Sound Design (A Love Story in 8 Scenes): Jada LaFrance; Stage Manager: Mayra Gurrola Calderon; Producers: Arianna Diaz Celon, Suzy Messerole and Aamera Siddiqui.
Cast: Freeing Assata - Jamaka T. Davis (Chorus), Inayah El-Amin (Chorus), Marci Lucht (Warden Butterworth), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Assata Shakur), Valencia Proctor (Chorus). A Love Story in 8 Scenes - Valencia Proctor (Memo), Tazrae Jemeli Song'ony (Ihsan), Dana Lee Thompson (Mom voiceover).