REVIEW: Burien Little Theatre’s Playwrights Festival, Part Two
by Shelli Park
If I closed my eyes last night at Burien Little Theatre as I sat waiting for the first of the final two plays of the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwrights Festival, I felt as though I was at the boarding gate of an airport. The gate agents’ voices over the P.A. system, crying children, the din of multiple conversations. Instead of getting on a flight, I opened my eyes and was treated to a wonderful dialogue in semantics and ergonomics.
“17 –B”, written by Stephen Feldman and directed by Russ Kay, is a story that addresses the needs of one versus the needs of many. Doris Cannon (Geni Hawkins), a professor of literature, is on her way to an important interview. Her seatmate, William Johnson (Tim Takechi), is a naïve but very enthusiastic young man. Doris is a composed, intelligent woman who is comfortable in her sense of entitlement. And she has needs. Doris purchased two airline seats for herself. She only plans to sit in one seat. The other is necessary personal space. The airlines calculate necessary space for a traveler based on profit margins rather than comfort. She brings William along as teammate as she navigates the system of rules, regulations and ethics of commercial air travel.
Shanda Russell plays Pam, a flight attendant. Pam carries the spirit of service with the no-nonsense, rules-are-rules attitude that is necessary when dealing with a lot of people in a small space. Pam is unable to make Doris understand why she must give up her seat. Russell fills the role wonderfully. She embodies the quintessential flight attendant.
Pam has to reach out to her superior to help resolve the Doris issue. Captain Scully (Dennis Moore) comes to the rescue. He engages Doris in lively repartee. Doris is impressed by Scully’s ability to debate the issue in a gentile manner. Moore, like Russell, embodies his character, a stereotypical airline captain in this case. Tall, calm and handsome, we feel reassured that all will be alright.
I always enjoy BLT’s use of music as a character and mood setter of the plays that they present. The second play, which is the second place winner in the festival, “Parsing Race” written by Dave Miller, is introduced through a playlist of cool jazz, a calming entrance into a big issue. Black vs. White. Racism. Resentment. Trust. Present day.
Rochelle Flynn has done an amazing job directing this play with a deft and sensitive hand.The actors handle this difficult material with grace.
This is a big play. It has been almost fifty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted by the United States. A lot of battles were won through the passage of the Act. Many changes have come about since that time. But where are we now?
The play opens as the two main characters Yolanda (Maria Knox) and John (Adam Hegg) engage in a quick pep talk before John meets Yolanda’s father, Walter, for the first time. Walter (Malcolm J. West) is a protective father. He has also had a hard life as a black man and has resentments. John thinks of himself as color blind. John is white. Walter pegs him as a racist, and Yolanda is caught between. Yolanda breaks things off with John after the meeting.
Friends of the couple, Maddie (Melissa Malloy) and Franklin (Charles Reccardo) are also a mixed race couple. Many race-related issues are addressed through a variety of conversation configurations. My favorite of these conversations is the girl-talk scene. Both Malloy and Knox play well together and bring humor and ease to the scene.
Malloy is comfortable in her role as confidant and idealist. She is a joy to watch on the stage as she helps the group navigate. Reccardo is successful as a serious, educated young black man wanting to give back to his community.
Furthering the complexity of the story, Saleem (Patrick Tolden) is introduced as a young man who Franklin met at the community center. Franklin invites Saleem to stay with Maddie and himself while he is sorting his life out. Saleem’s influence on the story is entwined throughout the play. Near the end, we meet Saleem’s grandmother (Vera Werre), another part of the equation Miller has created.
Tolden fully fits the role of an attention-seeking young man with an identity issue. His struggles are big, but there is hope. And Werre is wonderful. Her interpretation of Lydia, the grandmother, is full of heart. It is obvious that Lydia has had a hard life and that she hasn’t let it keep her down. She has a lot to give to her grandson, and they will help each other to heal.
Knox and Hegg are both great in their roles, although there is a bit of chemistry missing. Hegg might benefit from breathing fully through his scenes. He has the character down, but just needs to take it a step further.
In “Parsing Race,” Miller has tackled a huge, multi-faceted subject. The characters are fleshed out and complex, yet the overall impression is comfortable, not overwhelming. The characters are given balanced doses of strengths and challenges, allowing the audience to connect and empathize with each one. Miller hangs each issue delicately on a framework of a believable story which is both hard to watch, at times, and heart-warming. This is a very successful rendering of the race issue as we experience it today. There is hope for the divide that still exists between the races. Whether you are black or white, or any shade in-between, if you pay attention, you come away with a new and refreshing understanding.
Here are photos from the festival courtesy Michael Brunk:
The Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwrights Festival continues at BLT through May 26, and you can print our exclusive Coupon below:
Through May 26, Burien Little Theatre’s (BLT) Festival offers 4 weekends of new shows. Pay just $10 to see a performance of two plays — a one-act followed by a full-length. The one-act 17B is paired with the full-length Parsing Race May 17-26.
After each play is performed, audience members are invited to give their opinions and ask questions of the director and playwright. These talk-backs provide playwrights with fresh ideas, valuable comments, and honest audience response.
Festival sponsors include the new film The Maury Island Incident, Mark Restaurant & Bar, 4Culture King County Lodging Tax and City of Burien.
Staged performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are just $10 and include 2 shows.
Shows are recommended for ages 13 and older due to occasional language or mature subject matter. The Festival is sponsored by the City of Burien and Mark Restaurant & Bar.