Just when you wondered what else Holly Bass would do with her arsenal of skills in hip-hop, dance, spoken word, poetry and theater, she snaps us into shifting realities. This workshop production of The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company celebrates the strength of black women traveling through time all while embedded in vaudeville silliness.
There is something about women of color in pristine white garments, (gorgeous costumes by Jeannette Christensen) standing erect and exuding the most elegant and regal manner that makes you sit up straight like you’re back in Sunday school under Grandma’s watchful gaze. Just when you’re comfortably settled into that reality, Bass shape-shifts the characters into wearing balloon bottom bustles exaggerating the backsides and hustling a wonder drug elixir touted to heal all ailments. Where are we? How’d we get here? Where are we going? Zooming through this travelogue of stories, sounds and songs can be either unsettling or exhilarating depending on what you bring to the campsite.
With a bit of razzmatazz mixing familiar rhythms and sounds from earlier times with the modern, the performers seem to channel the spirits through the dimensions. Does it work? Mostly, the energy and enthusiasm of the performers sustain when interest would otherwise drift away. Through it all, Bass taps into the human experience with sordid glee.
Jasmine Hearn as Jemma/Judea, from New York, has the body motions and temperament built to move. Her limbs bend and sway every which way with a back that arches and undulates to depict any and all emotions. She is a marvel to watch. Kailasa Aqeel as Ruth fingers the banjo a bit and is a vocalist who carries her share of the theatrical flair. And then there is Holly Bass herself comfortable with the audience enough to encourage and elicit responses and riff with masterful intent. Her voice rumbles in a deep resonate timber as she intones songs of freedom or rhythms of Grandmaster Flash. Her main query deals with freedom — asking individuals do they feel free? It’s fascinating to dig deep to answer that and other questions about being afraid of the dark. The audience is part of the roadshow sitting semi-circle in chairs, benches and even rockers. We sing, clap and even dance a bit while considering the issues, uncomfortable at times but always enlightening.
The covered wagon set design by Tim Jones is astonishing and worthy of a visit. Not only does it swivel to showcase all sides, but it opens in the back for characters to climb into and pack belongings and has an authentic buggy front for the driver to sit as if heading off to the great frontier.
Like the set, the lighting design by Max Doolittle helps to propel the show through the somber moods, playful interludes and stark reality of the here and now.
Eventually we learn that the performers are time-travelers and their manners and mannerisms perfectly capture the stiff upright carriage of genteel women making their way across the vast land, hucksters selling a magical cure-all elixir, frightened newly freed women alert like rabbits ready to flee, or grooving rappers jamming in a poetry slam.
I admit, I needed time for the show to settle on me overnight. We’re so used to first impressions and the immediacy of what hits you at the moment. This show seeps into you as if needing time to marinate. What is the “disease” the characters keep referring to that lingers and infests through time? They’re on a time-bending mission to eradicate it. The foreboding sense of racism is never named, yet its effects infect us to this day as reflected in Bass’s startling final “joke.” The script is filled with passages, movements and stories that whiplash through time, taking you along for the ride if you let it. It’s a daring journey, but worth the trip.
The workshop production of The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company has closed. Cast: Holly Bass, Jasmine Hearn, Kailasa Aqeel . Set Design— Timothy J. Jones . Costume Design— Jeannette Christensen . Lighting Design— Max Doolittle . Sound Design— Evan Cook . Composer –Sam Crawford . Stage Manager— Ayesis Clay . Produced by Theater Alliance and Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.
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