Here is the episode that elevates Homebound, taking us out of this moment for 11 minutes virtually to show us how this moment fits into life’s larger narratives. It also takes us beyond Zoom, expanding technically, which opens the series up artistically as well.
“We Wear the Mask,” written by Farah Lawal Harris, focuses on Craig, the comical potato who can’t work Zoom. (see Episode 1) who’s now chilling on his front porch in a straw hat, tropical drink in hand, wrapping up a Gilligan’s Island themed happy hour with his CFS colleagues. But as he walks through his hallway (that’s right, we are watching him walk, not Zooming), you see an old framed program from his college days that features, unmistakably, his face: Othello. It hangs beside a white mask with a blood red inkblot pouring down the lower left side. He pauses so briefly you may miss it. Craig the potato was once not so comical.
Enter Chinna (Chinna Palmer), his niece—the one we heard about in episode one. She turned Craig into said potato. She’s not a prank-pulling pre-teen, but an artistic, sharp, tech-savvy young adult who now wants Craig to download an app called Marco Polo so they can share video messages. He’s skeptical. They’re a matched set—both thoughtful. Honest. Loving. And funny.
“Do you know how unprofessional I would’ve looked trying to run a meeting as a spud?” he says when she calls a little later.
“I don’t see the problem,” she says. “You still would’ve had brown skin and a chip on your shoulder, so…”
They also display the typical adult-child role reversal you see as people age when Chinna gives Craig the “third degree” to make sure he’s actually following the coronavirus rulebook: washing his hands, not touching his face, social distancing, and, of course, wearing a mask.
After some prodding, Chinna gets him to agree to use Marco Polo, with her throwing the first “Marco” (so to speak). But, first we glimpse her daily affirmations and how deep her faith and strength as an individual goes.
“This moment will not last forever” she says, eyes closed and legs crossed. “My edges will be laid and my bills will stay paid. I will get through this because my people have survived much worse. God will replace my grief with gratitude. God will replace my grief with gratitude. God will replace my grief with gratitude.”
The thing about video messages, or any message where you are not talking with a person in real time, is how they allow you to become reflective of your own vulnerabilities, insecurities, fears, and traumas. The receiver can’t immediately bounce them back in reactionary judgment or some unkind way; they themselves have time to absorb and respond in kind—reflective and vulnerable. Craig and Chinna’s volley, their calling of “Marco” and “Polo” to each other, is just that.
Chinna’s first message has her admitting that she woke feeling lonely and empty. Craig responds; he feels down, too, but doesn’t know why. Chinna responds and they volley, easily and effortlessly—just like family tied by both blood and friendship—exploring loneliness in the now and through the ages as African Americans.
The episode’s title, “We Wear the Mask,” takes it name from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar written in 1895. The poem recounts life post-slavery when life for African Americans should have been better, but they still faced rampant hate, racism, hardship, oppression—all that went, and goes with, being black in America—while having to pretend they did not. They wore a mask of freedom while still living a life akin to slavery.
Writer Farah Lawal Harris, a first generation Nigerian and Artistic Director of Young Playwrights’ Theater, is also a poet, and she’s chosen the perfect one to encapsulate the journey Craig and Chinna, and likely many African Americans (and I would argue any non-white person) is facing today—forced into near isolation, met with open fear and suspicion. Pretending none of it bothers them. Add to that (what I’ll call) the double mask conundrum of putting on a physical mask that could mark a black man (in particular) a threat to be targeted police or vigilantes. This episodes packs a lot into 11 minutes.
Both Palmer and Craig Wallace bring depth to their characters, depth to the series, and a depth of understanding to how this pandemic could (and maybe should) forever alter America’s collective psyche—I hope for the better. Harris deserves substantial credit, too, for blending a myriad of seemingly disparate elements (post-Civil War American literature, tech/apps, call backs to past episodes) to create not just a cohesive narrative thread with the whole of Homebound but almost a self-contained mini-movie.
She’s aided by advanced technical production, provided in part by Matthew Riggieri of Digital Cave in Baltimore, and excellent direction. As I mentioned earlier, Homebound has really moved beyond the limitations of Zoom— through post editing, you’ll see camera in camera, videos embedded within the video, and editing multiple shots together to create a dramatic side-by-side frame (which is quite effective). “We Wear the Mask” also features some much needed close shots and wide shots (of the sort)—allowing us to see these characters fully and fully within their environment, heightening our understanding of who they are. Using traditional film shots, sparingly, as directors Ryan Rillette and Nicole A. Watson do, reminds us how individuals are so much more than a computer or phone screen.
I’m genuinely excited for next week’s episode and officially invested in both Craig and Maboud and their circle of friends and family. We have lots of breadcrumbs to follow, some introduced here, some still lingering in the ether—like should we be shipping Maboud and Alina just yet? Did they connect at the happy hour? Also, why did Craig call Maboud that first episode for help–do they have a deeper friendship beyond the office? I sure hope so. Maboud seems in need and Craig, well, he’s wonderful.
Round House Theatre’s Homebound is an original webseries that explores life under Stay-at-Home orders in the Nation’s Capital. Directed by Ryan Rilette and Nicole A. Watson. “We Wear the Mask” written by Farah Lawal Harris. Featuring Chinna Palmer and Craig Wallace. Produced by Ryan Rilette and Ed Zakreski. Edited by Matthew Riggieri. Post Production Courtesy of Digital Cave. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.