Double Dutch equals freedom.
A character in She A Gem, on-stage at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater through Feb. 24th, says that, or something to that effect, early in the hour-long show.
Cultural representation can be so vital for the empowerment of communities that have been traditionally marginalized and underrepresented. So it’s wonderful that this world premiere play, commissioned by Kennedy Center, focuses on teenage African-American women.
And it’s just as wonderful that the production is so accomplished: masterfully directed; wonderfully acted; gorgeously designed.
Josh Wilder’s play is thought-provoking. Yes, it follows some fairly traditional dramatic tropes — a tight-knit group is challenged by having to incorporate an outsider; a competition becomes an opportunity for life lessons — but, also and importantly, it animates the world of its teenage characters in a manner that is illuminating to a general audience, respectful of and empathic toward its characters, and, I can only imagine, must be thrilling to those in the audience who might be connecting to a theatrical experience in a way they never have before.
Paige Hernandez has directed the piece with a skillfulness that brings forth depth from the script, richness in the world that it creates, and the best in her collaborators.
Her cast of five is terrific. They include Kashayna Johnson, Heather Gibson, and Alicia Grace as the trio of friends on a double-dutch team, and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as their mentor. Each of the five has wonderful moments, and all were so good that I feel guilty to single out any one of them.
However, I must: Moriamo Temidayo Akibu, as the newcomer to the group, has a monologue that took my breath away. A second tier status is often conferred upon theatre for young audiences (though, thankfully, less and less so, as the work in this field has rightfully gained in recognition). This, however, is a performance that I wish every committed theatre-goer could experience, and an actor who I hope is given many more opportunities to shine her bright light on our stages.
Hernandez should be acknowledged not only for the excellence of the performances, but also for the exhilarating and articulate design aspects of the production.
She a Gem
closes February 24, 2019
Details and tickets
The choreography is, as you would expect in a play to which athleticism is central, wildly impressive. The choreographer is Jocelyn Isaac, working here with “Double-Dutch Coach” Ebony Ingram (and, of course, with those awesome actors) to provide movement that feels thoroughly authentic and was faultlessly executed.
Again, it pains me to single out any among the designers (who include Sarah Woodham on costumes and Kenny Neal on sound), but, again, I must.
The beautifully integrated work of Scenic Designer Debra Kim Sivigny and Lighting and Projections Designer Rob Siler is magnificent. It achieves the difficult hat-trick of being entirely functional, aesthetically pleasing, and surprising, as the design supports the script and characterizations in a way that I won’t spoil by describing here.
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Speaking of spoiling, I don’t want to talk much about plot. However, like all good stories, this one triggers reflection while it is being experienced.
Watching the skill of the actors/characters doing the double-dutch, one can’t help but reflect on this injustice: that the athleticism of girls and women is shockingly under-appreciated in our culture. I thought of that documentary Hoop Dreams, about aspiring male basketball players, and then thought about how the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of those dreams is so much more full than what will await even the successful women engaged in this sport.
Listening to the chanted verses that accompany the jumping, one ponders how they are, in some sense, an antecedent to rap.
“If one of us makes it, we all make it.” Judging by the vocal reaction in the audience at the performance I saw, that line — along with much else in this play — strikes a chord that will resonate with many.
And the creativity and artistry — and wit — that define this production demonstrate that She A Gem represents that precept — and an underrepresented audience.
She A Gem by Josh Wilder. Directed by Paige Hernandez. Featuring Moriamo Temidayo Akibu, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Heather Gibson, Alicia Grace, Kashayna Johnson. Choreographer: Jocelyn Isaac. Double-Dutch Coach: Ebony Ingram. Scenic Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny. Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham. Lighting and Projections Designer: Rob Siler. Sound Designer: Kenny Neal. Production Stage Manager: Rachael Danielle Albert. Produced by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.