Arena Stage inaugurates its Kogod Cradle theater, an incubator for new plays, with an invigorating production of Marcus Gardley’s every tongue confess, a sprawling tale about hate crimes and intolerance that combines folklore, supernatural elements, gospel, and comedy.
Mr. Gardley’s high flying, poetic musicality puts you in mind of August Wilson and Kenny Leon, a veteran director of Wilson plays, capitalizes on this with a staging that celebrates the rhythms and symbolism rife in rich language.
In addition to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Gardley’s appreciation of Southern, African American folktales about God and the devil draws comparisons to Zora Neale Hurston’s story collection titled “Every Tongues Got to Confess” and to Southern writer Flannery O’Connor in the play’s Gothic, pentecostal tone.
Although based on real-life incidents – the burning of black churches in the South in the 1990s – every tongue confess takes many flights of fancy in telling how a backwater Alabama community copes with the specter of arson and a summer so hot it’s like being in Satan’s sauna.
Myths and miracles are part of the everyday fabric of Boligee, Alabama. As three faithful—and gossipy—churchgoers (the excellent Crystal Fox, Eugene Lee, and E. Roger Mitchell) face the fiery furnace, they use what could well be their last moments on earth to sift through recollections and perceptions and present theories as to who is setting churches on fire and why.
It takes a giant suspension of disbelief to swallow that three people trapped in a burning church would not panic or try to escape but instead calmly accept their circumstances and plop down on the wooden pews to swap stories, confess their transgressions, and even banter in a hilarious bit of one-upmanship as they riff on how hot it is.
Once you accept the play’s magical realism, you get caught up in this allegorical whodunit. every tongue confess contains a dizzying array of intertwined tales that feature Mother Sister (Phylicia Rashad), a preacher with healing powers and her devoted but aching to be free son Shadrack (the superb Jason Dirden), a comatose woman named Bernadette (Leslie Kritzer) and her traumatized daughter Benny (Autumn Hurlbert), a rifle-toting redneck called Stoker Pride (Jim Ireland) who nurses a nasty secret and the strange visitor Blacksmith (Jonathan Peck).
Some of these stories work better than others. Bernadette starts off as dumb white trash, just your typical drug dealing Mom with an abusive black boyfriend, but then abruptly turns into some sort of dithering guardian angel who drops in from the next world to console her daughter and threaten Stoker if he doesn’t take proper care of Benny. The character of Stoker, too, seems burdened by racist cracker stereotypes, although to his credit Mr. Ireland plays them to the hilt in a juicy, abandoned performance. He so thoroughly revels in redneck splendor that the revelation as to Stoker’s true nature and legacy at the end of the play strains credulity.
The playwright does not know what to do with the character of Benny either, although there is a lyrical interlude when she gets her voice back during a dark night of the soul. Her relationship with Shadrack exudes sweetness and freshness, however, having Benny belt out “His Eyes Are On the Sparrow” a capella in the middle of a black church just seems to encompass every cliché about black people showing constrained white people how to live, love, laugh.
Far more compelling and convincing is Mother Sister’s transformation from a stern and forbidding woman burdened by the gift of sight to a visionary brimming with life and power. The interplay with Shadrack is beautiful and musical, especially when she offers up a benediction to her departing son that is at once funny and ferocious. Miss Rashad is equally intense and poised in her interactions with Blacksmith, who was brought back to settle his business and fulfill promises made on this earth.
Mr. Peck’s Blacksmith is playful and mysterious—an unworldly figure with earthy desires. One minute, he’s teaching Shadrack suggestive blues songs, and the next he’s breaking down Mother Sister’s barriers using only his voice and the thunderous gestures of his hands. The ending of the play is so over-the-top apocalyptic it would make William Faulkner seem like a minimalist, but Mr. Peck handles the excesses with grace and makes the moment oddly affecting.
every tongue confess needs some judicious pruning and focusing to fully tap its vibrant potential.
every tongue confess
by Marcus Gardley
directed by Kenny Leon
produced by Arena Stage
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
every tongue confess runs thru January 2, 2011 at Arena’s Kogod Cradle Theater, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC.
Buy tickets here. Or call the Arena Stage box office for best availability: 202 488-3300.
- Hilton Als . New Yorker
- Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
- Shantella Y. Sherman and James Wright . Washington Informer
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Michael Toscano . TheaterMania
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway
Denel Baber . Afro
- Trey Graham . City Paper
Paul Harris . Variety
Cindy Barnes-Thomas . theLoop21
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Peter Marks . Washington Post