Can children ever escape the sins of their fathers and mothers? In their electric, incisive premiere of playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Not Enuf Lifetimes, The Welders wade into the cycles of pain and redemption that define American families of every economic and racial stripe.
Jennings’ tale of hopeful struggle in the shadows of the past opens in an inner city coffee shop, where idealistic Ian is trying to sell his gruff father Frank on his latest bright idea. Ian is a med-school dropout trying to make a positive change through his upstart inner-city daycare. Bright-eyed Kiernan McGowan brings a ceaseless frenetic energy to the role, which runs the gamut from naïve enthusiasm to spiraling gloom as the play wears on.
DC theater vet Elliott Bales channels old school grit as Frank, an Irish Catholic auto mechanic with a chip on his shoulder. Frank has little patience for what he sees as Ian’s latest quixotic crusade, having worked his entire life so that Ian “could be someone important”. Bales’ military experience lends an authentic air to his no-nonsense performance; he’s like a drill instructor mentoring a hyperactive young recruit. From the start, Bales exerts an easy chemistry with McGowan, which is fortunate because Ian and Frank’s relationship is the linchpin of the play.
The play then jumps backward in time, introducing the audience to Ian’s closest friends and partners: Ronnie, a cynical yet passionate poet and rapper, and Manjit, a steely social worker with her own parental issues. Ronnie and Manjit initially rebuffed Ian’s “white knight” plans, living as they do in a place where good intentions come to die. Ian eventually won them over, and the three formed an unlikely team, fighting together to revive their blighted neighborhood.
As Ronnie, actor David Lamont Wilson gives a soulful, damaged performance; like Frank, he balances out Ian’s naïve crusading with his own hard-earned life lessons. Ronnie’s arresting spoken word segments allow the audience to breathe and digest the emotion of each scene. Wilson also occupies a dual role as Dante, Ian and Manjit’s soft-spoken, white collar landlord; his facility with both sides of the emotional and economic spectrum makes his performance all the more impressive.
Shanta Parasuraman gives a quietly powerful turn as Manjit, balancing Ian’s exuberance with patience and cutting wit. While she mostly spends the play as an exasperated foil to Ian’s naïve dreamer, she adds needed steadiness as almost the only calm presence inside an emotional powder keg.
The drama pivots smoothly from cozy bedroom to indie coffee shop to gusty city streets with only a few steps, thanks to the collaboration between set designer Ethan Sinnott and Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks. Their crafty world-building allows the Welders’ intimate space in the Atlas Theater to play bigger than actual size.
As Not Enuf gains steam, the stakes rise ever higher for Ian and his friends in their fight for the center. Ian’s stress mounts and the happy go lucky façade he wore at the outset becomes a faint memory. His stressful turn is explained in part by the entrance of his prickly mother Cheryl, who reveals Ian’s dark childhood through flashbacks. Melissa Flaim coolly navigates the challenging role of a flawed woman grappling to channel motherly love through a veil of bigotry, regrets, and deep psychological scars.
Once the fateful deadline to save the center comes and goes, an unexpected turn of events brings the swirling emotion and multiple plotlines into stark focus. It’s here that the skill of the cast and director Psalmayene 24 shine through, after the dust has settled and the characters are forced to deal with the unimaginable.
NOT ENUF LIFETIMES
Closes November 15, 2014
The Welders at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Wednesdays thru Sundays
On the other hand, it’s possible Jennings and Psalmayene 24 planned this air of awkwardness to create a dialogue around the fraught appropriation of black culture; it’s a complex show, after all.
Ultimately, Not Enuf uses issues of race and class as a compelling backdrop for an emotional tale of parental failings and youthful rebellion. The show begins and ends with Ian and Frank seeking a deeper relationship to each other and the world around them – something that’s always just out of reach. This strong second outing from the Welders will make you call your loved ones, just to let them know you care.
Not Enuf Lifetimes by Caleen Sinnette Jennings . Directed by Psalmayene 24 . Featuring Kiernan McGowan, Elliott Bales, Melissa Flaim, Shanta Parasuraman, and David Lamont Wilson. Scenic Designer: Ethan Sinnott . Lighting Designer: Allan Sean Weeks . Costume Designer: Katie Touart . Sound Designer: David Lamont Wilson . Props Designer: Lauren Chilton . Stage Manager: Jenna Duncan assisted by Nate Collard . Production Manager: Rich Ching . Produced by The Welders . Reviewed by Ben Demers.
NOT ENUF LIFETIMES
Closes Nov 15
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts destined to become an American classic.