A black woman stands alone and announces to the audience she’s white. So begins Chinaka Hodge’s new play about race in America, Mirrors in Every Corner, at the Intersection for the Arts through March 21.
The woman addressing us, Miranda, aka Random, played brilliantly by Margo Hall, is the white daughter of two black parents. This is her story. Although, she assures us, it is not her story, it is their story, her family’s story. So begins Chinaka Hodge’s new play about an African-American family in late 20th century Oakland.
We meet the mother (Willie), played wonderfully by Margo Hall, who wants to get rid of the body of a white girl in her house (all circumstances cloudy). Willie slips from one time to another, as she gestures, moves, and speaks, mainly to the audience. She’s clearly freaked out about having a white daughter, but this is Oakland in the 1980s; suffering for black women knows no bottom. So begins Chinaka Hodge’s new play about the subjugation, strength and madness of African American women in the era Reagan, Bush and the War on Drugs.
We meet Willie’s other children: three boys (one I thought was a girl) as she plays cards with them. The father is off stage in a bedroom. The twins fight with each other playing a sad game that is more profound than sibling rivalry in an already dysfunctional family (one eventually goes off to Iraq, the other to Richmond). The older brother, Watts, impotently asserts his role as the “man” in the family as he veers from using his mind (he always has a book in hand) to loosing his mind (his mother tells us in case we failed to notice.) So begins Chinaka Hodge’s new play about young African American males trying to navigate the devastated crackscape of West Oakland in the early zeroes.
A number of false starts? No. A suggestion that there are a number of themes running through the play, and no theme is an island. On the other hand, despite the ambition and the promise, the play doesn’t weave the thematic elements together successfully, and expected insights fail to materialize.
Why? Maybe placing a white daughter in a black family raises interesting questions about the nature of probability and the construction of race, but when you place the family in West Oakland during an extraordinarily dissolute and desperate era of crack, AIDS and poverty, how much does the white daughter add to this already excruciating tragedy? How much can she?
Although the characters constantly refer to Random and interact with her, what happens with or to them doesn’t appear to be contingent on whether Random is white or black, male or female, flesh or fantasy. In that sense, Random is correct. It is her family’s story.
The strength of Mirrors comes from the energy and depth of the of spoken word soliloquies by each of the actors. In that respect, the play showcases Ms. Hodge’s talents and her development as a poet. Unfortunately, it is also the case that spoken word tends toward stylized exposition, and a reliance on exposition drains characters of vitality and dimension; their relationships at once formal and unformed. In compelling theater, words act. In Mirrors, words mainly explain, describe, and mostly stake out positions for the characters.
So the characters have different things to say, but they still sound similar, or like slight variations on a single voice. Maybe that’s why during the performance, I got the impression that along with Hall, the rest of the excellent cast – Daveed Diggs, Dwight Huntsman and Traci Tolmaire – were not only performing dynamite spoken word, but were also still trying to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of their characters, still creating identity. I found their work fascinating and also got into the set, largely made up of photographs, paintings, memorabilia and letters on identity written by local school children.
Mirrors in Every Corner is now playing at the Intersection for the Arts through March 21, 2010. For more information www.theintersection.org, 415-626-2787.