In the morning we go down, you and I, to the bowels of the Washington Metro Transit system and there jostle and sway, with hundreds of strangers, in metal rectangular boxes through tubes drilled far under the earth on the way to our myriad destinations. Playwright Brittany Alyse Willis does too, and so Willis wrote Use All Available Doors, titled after WMATA’s most incomprehensible direction. (No matter how many doors are available, I will use only one.) To see the play, we must go, you and I, to the bowels of the Dupont Underground, and, in its chilly depths, watch a day in the life of the Metro’s infamous Red Line.
A trip from Shady Grove to Glenmont on the WMATA Red Line takes a little more than an hour and costs three and a half bucks. A trip on Pinky Swear’s Use All Available Doors is forty-five minutes longer and costs more, but is more interesting. The great writing teacher Gary Prevost once said “writing isn’t life, it’s life’s greatest hits,” and Willis applies that principle with a vengeance, providing startling snippets of slice-of-life between the stops.
Some of them are astonishing. A man (Nexus) suddenly, and without provocation, kneels before a woman sitting across from him (Tokia “2Deep” Carter). He removes her shoes and, to her evident delight, cleans her feet with a handi-wipe. Is he a foot fetishist? Is he performing an act of humility and love, akin to when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles? The episode’s excitable narrator (Shane Marshall Solo) doesn’t know — doesn’t fathom a guess, but in his urgency, he sounds like the Ancient Mariner.
Benefited by a strong ensemble cast, most of the play’s episodes are similarly juicy. The longest, and maybe the best, involves an episode dismayingly familiar to most of us who ride the Metro. Outside of Farragut North, the train is delayed as the train ahead of it has broken down. A couple (Nexus and Nicole Ruthmarie) and their five-year-old son (Solo); a nervous, foul-mouthed young man (jay sun). two toughies ready to take him on (Carter and Ezra Tozian) and a peacemaker with a backpack full of breakfast bars (Darnell Eaton) roil and bubble as the wait continues. Time passes; they get hungry. There’s a fight about the breakfast bars. One of the passengers grows obstreperous and is tied to a seat with plastic fasteners. Passengers fall in and out of love. The train lurches suddenly; the lights go off, and then on, but dimmer; there are weird noises, distant cousins of the sounds we expect on the Metro. The operator (Lady Davonne) reassures the passengers that all is well and that they will be on the move shortly, and then begins to weep.
Eventually, the train begins to inch forward. The payoff is — well, I won’t tell you what the payoff is. You’ll have to see for yourself.
There are several other cool episodes, including a push-and-shove through an overcrowded car (again, very familiar to most of us riders) which suddenly breaks out into a dance; and a polyphony of accidental rhythms (including Eaton as a man with the sniffles) which morphs into a fine rendition of Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect”.
A couple of episodes are notso hotso. The initial episode has Nexus and Ruthmarie as a team of bloggers, trying to dragoon Tozian’s character into talking about how bad the Red Line is. But most of Willis’ sketches have more life in them.
Use All Available Doors
closes May 6, 2018
Details and tickets
In one episode, Nexus plays a little boy and Ruthmarie plays his mother. She tells him a story about an opera singer who misappropriates a piece of crystal. Unsatisfied, the child says “it’s not a story if it doesn’t have an ending” and so mom crafts a ridiculous dénouement.
Regrettably, this is Willis’ principal failing in Use All Available Doors. As a frame, the operator is trying to compose a eulogy for her beloved mother. Eventually she does so, but it has nothing to do with the action we’ve seen so far, and if there is anything she draws from her experience with the characters which helps her to put her mother in perspective, I did not see it.
So what we have is a sky full of stars, but no constellation. This is not the worst thing in the world. (You’ve enjoyed a book of short stories or two in your life, I’ll bet). The actors all do good work, especially Carter, Ruthmarie and Solo, who each inhabit a wide variety of characters convincingly. sun acts well and provides, when needed, a fine backbeat, using a small trunk as a percussion instrument. Props, too, to director Toni Rae Salmi, who moves the action briskly and with precision, and to the technical side, including especially costumes designer Liz Gossens and the uncredited dresser, who makes it possible for actors who disappear from one episode appear in the next, looking significantly different. Cresent Haynes’ sound design instantly invokes the Metro experience, and set designer Mike Salmi gives us a stage which is true to life, and true to Metro.
It is quite chilly down in the bowels of the Dupont Underground, so dress warmly even though the sun may be shining and the crocuses in bloom aboveground. When you make it to the Pinky Swear production space (there’s an interesting art show along the way) you will notice blankets draped over some of the seats. They are for you, so use one if you get cold. In the Underground, as on the Metro, we must depend on the kindness of strangers.
Use All Available Doors, by Brittany Alyse Willis, directed by Toni Rae Salmi. Featuring Tokia “2Deep” Carter, Lady Davonne, Darnell Eaton, Nexus, Nicole3 Ruthmarie, Shane Marshall Solo, Jay Sun, and Ezra Tozian . Set design by Mike Salmi . Lighting design by Katie McCreary . Costume design by Liz Gossens . Sound design by Cresent Haynes . Choreography by Pauline Novella Lamb . Katherine Offutt is the stage manager . Produced by Pinky Swear Productions . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.