By Ed Shockley
Produced by African Continuum Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
It’s not often you find a work that features a young black female on the classic hero’s quest, seeking answers to life’s baffling questions about one’s role, purpose, identity. Rarer still is to have the caliber of actors-Jewell Robinson and Erika Rose in the lead roles. The world premiere of The Oracle by Ed Shockley, produced by the African Continuum Theatre Company offers such a quest. The genesis inspiration for the play was apparently a 1932 short story by George Bernard Shaw, The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God.
Presented in story format, The Oracle unfolds as a series of vignettes about what happens to a young girl as she sets out on her own to find answers. It covers lots of territory, including a stylized approach to the Middle Passage and the slave trade, a topic recently covered elsewhere on H Street in Insurrection: Holding History, written by Robert O’Hara produced at Theater Alliance. Shockley notes that by “softening this stuff… we can afford to look at…the themes and the meanings and the lessons” more closer.” It’s an ambitious project.
Also noteworthy is that this is Jennifer Nelson’s final production as the founding Artistic Director of the African Continuu, Theatre Company. Selecting The Oracle was obviously intentional and well-deliberated with significant meanings and messages tucked beneath the overt surface images, much like the fable itself. The first statement is the obvious risk of producing a world premiere, a piece that hasn’t been tested, to determine if it has the wings to fly or even just legs to stand up on its own. With sentiment aside for Nelson and her accomplishments in consistently producing some of the finest black theater in the area, The Oracle is a solid testament to her vision, and is sturdy enough to be as deeply rooted as the Baobab tree that occupies center stage, although it could use some pruning.
Jewell Robinson is commendable in her formidable roles, namely Lady of the Caves, moving with grace and dignity between her various characters speaking through masks at times, held up on walking sticks. Still, the show belongs to Erika Rose who is iridescent as the young princess on a self-proclaimed journey. Rose shows the gamut of young adolescent behavior on her self-imposed exile from home. Cast out from the village by her father the King for asking so many impudent questions, namely, ‘why are you King?’, she refuses to back down and instead remains steadfast in her quest to find out for herself. The author provides some of the basic elements of Charlotte’s character, but the heart of the delivery is all Rose and Nelson. She displays the same charming playfulness as in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters at Imagination Stage. Charlotte has the petulant air of a pampered and indulged “tween,” but she also shows a remarkable undergirding of strength and perseverance to withstand the tests of life, whether as administered by magical creatures along the way, or surviving capture and being shackled aboard a slave ship.
It’s here where the story gets somewhat murky, as if the writer is twisting in and out of his element. Going from the fable characters and animal creatures she meets along the way, to being captured in a trap being held upside down in a cage, then led away in shackles -it’s a wide range to cover in the storybook tone and format. The slavery passages are so sketchy, Charlotte doesn’t seem to bare any burden from this peculiar institution-the most notable event is that she is renamed “Rebecca,” a detail that’s mentioned once and discarded.
What shouldn’t be discarded are the beautiful masks and puppets, designed by Marie Schneggenburger-they are true works of art-well operated by Erica McLaughlin and Alex Perez.
For her final directorial selection as Founding Artistic Director, Nelson wanted the audience to feel like a family sitting around the village circle listening to the story unfold. Though the tale takes some unexpected twists, in a way, it’s the same familiar story, most of which has been done just as well by Imagination Theater. Still, these are important life passages that need to be examined and explored, and since any world premiere must be seen as a work in progress, we can only have faith in stronger future offerings. Furthermore, the creative masks liven up the tale, and the duo scenes between the two leads are quite special.
Thanks to Nelson, this first outing of The Oracle is finding its legs to stand and could well be on its way to take flight.
(Running time: 90 minutes) The Oracle runs through June 3rd at the Atlas Performance Center, 1333 H Street, N.E. a production of the African Continuum Theater Company. Tickets: $32 – $37. For additional information call 202-399-7993 or visit their website.