At last, a play about planning and project management.
If it weren’t for the stage lights and stadium seating, you might think you were at work, trapped in a 100-minute meeting with Powerpoint slides.
Of course, you imagine playwright Christina Anderson did not intend The Ashes Under Gait City to be a searing drama about process. In fact, the play bristles with ideas, starting with the provocative concept. Gait City is the name of a fictional burg in Oregon that, like many American cities, has a shameful past.
A long time ago, before cars and airplanes, a great fire engulfed Gait City, burning it to the ground. The survivors were determined to rebuild and erected a new Gait City from memory, structure by structure, person by person, atop the ashes. Only they “forgot”—intentionally or not, it is never clear—the black citizenry.
Simone the Believer (Daphne Gaines, tranquilly incandescent as a radical guru), a charismatic online life coach who has people pay her to believe in them, calls this omission “disregard.” She is tired of the history of black people being about disrespect and displacement. Simone wants to establish Gait City as a mecca for disenfranchised black people, a utopian community that reclaims the rightful place of African Americans.
An ambitious concept—but Simone is also practical and recruits people to her vision one by one. And she deftly uses social media and going viral to draw attention to her cause and attract followers.
She starts with one of her former clients, D (Kaliswa Brewster), a go-getter project manager, and soon adds Jeremiah (the greatly affecting Biko Eisen-Martin), a handyman and barrista who comes from a radical family, and Clay (Willie C. Carpenter), a Simone acolyte who winds up in Gait City after gentrification has displaced him from one neighborhood after another. The last of her core group is Felicia (an invigoratingly astringent Shauna Miles), a wounded young woman who wounds with her sharp tongue and who is also an ancestor of Gait City’s disregarded black survivors.
What a brilliant and provoking concept—a reparations city founded through the power of social media.
Cleverly, Anderson has her characters tethered to their phones, laptops and tablets—they seem to be ineffective without them. Computer projections blast emails, texts, and statistics about how many hits and followers Simone gets on her YouTube videos and other cyber-outreach. This is a revolution without a pause button.
The execution of this concept, sadly, gets bogged down in dreary details. Much of Gait City is concerned with the nuts and bolts of community activism, rendered with such workmanlike plodding by Anderson and director Lucie Tiberghien you’d swear it was intended to be a how-to manual.
THE ASHES UNDER GAIT CITY
Closes August 3, 2014
Contemporary American Theatre Festival
62 West Campus Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $53 – $59
Details and Tickets
Speaking of “out of nowhere,” after nearly two hours of process, a Lord of the Flies-meets-The Lottery ending is tacked on, meaning to shock but instead confuses. Is the playwright saying change can only come from brutality or that black people are only capable of creating a community out of violence? By this time you are so numbed by detail the only thing you are appalled by is the squandering of a great idea.
The Ashes Under Gait City by Christina Anderson . Directed by Lucie Tiberghien . Featuring Kaliswa Brewster, Willie C. Carpenter, Biko Eisen-Martin, Daphne Gaines, and Shauna Miles . Set Design: Luciana Stecconi . Costume Design: Devon Painter . Lighting Design: Tony Galaska . Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis . Video Design: Matthew Haber . Dramaturg: Theresa Davis . Stage Manager: Lori M. Doyle . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.