In the poster for Rabbit Summer, a woman wearing a glamorous dressing gown stands provocatively, hands seemingly on her hips. A closer look through the shadows reveals she’s actually holding a double-barrel shotgun behind her back.
Described as “…an exploration of legacy, gun rights, secrets not well kept, and what it means to ‘live your truth’ in an America built on lies,” Rabbit Summer is the latest startlingly fresh production from Ally Theatre Company.
On the surface, Wilson and Ruby live the perfect American dream in middle America, Ohio. In the opening scene Wilson makes it clear that serious loving is on his mind, and approaches Ruby with playful (and funny as hell) thrusts of glory that she sinks into with pleasure and delight.
Michelle Rogers has a sensuous flair blended with an intensity of the moment that keeps a firm focus on her irresistible charm as Ruby. This complex character maintains all kinds of scenarios in her mind as she slinks along like a come-hither siren in radiant satin gowns. Her actions and decisions would leave anyone else aghast but she weaves and dodges everything with ease.
For example, we find out that the constant coupling has a special intention, to take advantage of her fertility cycle—Wilson is hellbent on siring a son while their young daughter is at sleep-away camp. Ruby seems to be on the same page, but her sabotaging actions later on come from her unwillingness to bring up a male child while struggling to convince society that Black Lives Matter.
Jeremy Keith Hunter plays Wilson as the do-gooder determined to do the right thing in all kinds of circumstances. Rising in the ranks as a police officer, he believes he can assure that everything will come out all right through will power alone. He distances himself from the philandering legacy of his father and keeps his feelings safely tucked behind a positive spin. However, the world is far from a safe haven, as personally witnessed by Ruby’s belligerently grieving best friend Claire who suddenly parks at their place, mourning the loss of her husband, killed by a white officer.
Claire is the catalyst who stirs up the pot with anger that simmers for a while before boiling over. Playwright Tracey Conyers Lee leaves no room for even a smidgen of mirth for this character who is caustic and cutting in her grief spilling secrets and wreaking havoc along the way.
As Claire, Tamieka Chavis brings a hangdog expression that is deeply layered. Someone less accomplished would be stuck in a perpetual frown. Chavis relays the feelings of destitution, weariness, anger, despair in her body language, tonal expressions and movement. It’s through Claire that decisive points are raised that lead to a meltdown between the characters revealing weaknesses, distrust and fear. And enough firearms to require a “weapons advisor” in the credits.
A lot of the story is anchored on the tale of the upright armoire (that Wilson calls a name passed through the generations that sounds like “chickawa”) that was a passageway for slaves escaping to freedom. Wilson is awestruck with the gravity of its meaning every time he touches it. His entire being is physically affected when he relays the stories of two or even three slaves crammed in its tight hidden compartment, waiting days for freedom. Playwright Lee interweaves the messages beautifully melding the hellish reflections of the physically enslaved while her characters long for “emotional freedom” from their own modern day shackles.
closes January 28, 2018
Details and tickets
The script covers so many issues, interlacing reflections about guns and gun violence with family values, personal freedom and the pernicious effects of systemic racism. When Ruby chooses firearms for safety, the play asks how much does “the right to bear arms” apply to black people? The many issues collide and the issues scramble all over each other at times. But the stakes are high, the dynamics are palpable, and director KenYatta Rogers keeps everything brewing so that when the inevitable shot is fired with all the characters off stage, you’re hanging on the edge of your seat wondering who will return. It’s a gripping scene.
Part of this new company’s mission is to “engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America.” Just what we need right now, all while delivering high quality thought-provoking theater. How and why I missed their original world premiere, Clover, last year is beyond me. I did catch The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, however, and was mesmerized by the company’s creativity and spunk. An original work written by renowned actress Jennifer Mendenhall is their summer offering. Now in its second season, Ally Theater is a newfound treasure, and Rabbit Summer, a world premiere also part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival shows why.
Rabbit Summer by Tracey Conyers Lee . Directed by KenYatta Rogers . Cast: Michelle Rogers, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Tamieka Chavis . Set Design & Construction— Robert Hamilton . Lighting Design— E-hui Woo . Sound Design—Hope Villanueva . Costume Design—Dominique Caddy . Props Design & Set Dressing—Katherine Offutt . Weapons Advisor: Chris Niebling . Stage Manager— Sophie Barden . Produced by Ally Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.