SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 16, 2016 – Of all five dramas currently on stage at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), Chisa Hutchinson’s world premiere drama “The Wedding Gift” wins hand down in the “over-the-top” category. Hutchinson’s weirdly funny parable on race relations attracts, repels, amuses and confuses as it races along to a conclusion you probably won’t expect.
From its outlandish, insanely colorful costuming to its “Twilight Zone”-like plot, this world premiere production was (and is) a real attention-getter. Unsurprisingly that was, at least in part, precisely the playwright’s intention.
As the lights come up on the Frank Center stage, we find ourselves in the middle of a very strange world indeed. David M. Barber’s scenic backdrop is a series of geometrically-decorated Star Trek airlock-style openings and sliding doors against which we find an entourage of crazily dressed individuals chatting, babbling and gesticulating that something very important is about to commence.
The characters’ outfits radiate primary colors, particularly bright, Afro-centric shades of red and yellow More unusually, they boast cut-outs where we don’t usually see them, stiff, angular, geometric hoop-skirts, and, at least for some, crazy, “macaroni”-style headgear that seems to indicate the social pecking order. Peggy McKowen gets credit for these eye-catchingly insane designs, very likely the most surreal costuming we’ve ever seen in a CATF production.
Visually, it’s all an alien environment, though in a way, those costumes remind us of the bizarre runway fashions kooky designers will offer in Paris designer shows. Even stranger: the animated discussions among the characters on stage are completely unintelligible, conducted as they are in a beyond-Klingon language that no one in the audience (save, perhaps, for the actors and the playwright) can remotely understand, at least initially.
Within less than a minute, it becomes quite clear (or so we think) that what we’re actually witnessing is some kind of space alien royal wedding ceremony and celebration on a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away.
In addition, all these animated space aliens happen to be black. In itself, that’s not exceptional on American stages any more. Or at least it isn’t until the bride’s “wedding gift” is brought in, imprisoned in what looks like a circus animal’s cage. But the creature in the cage isn’t an animal. It’s a human being, a white guy, to be precise. The only white character in the play.
As the black cast oohs and ahhs in space alien-speak, our nearly-naked white male wedding gift protests vigorously against his bizarre fate, using good old American English, complete with colorful metaphors, to make his objections known. But, much to Doug’s dawning horror, pretty much no one in the entourage can understand his gibberish
Like Doug (Jason Babinsky)—which is the white guy’s actual name—we more or less can’t make out a word of what the royal, black, space alien wedding entourage is saying. But if we pay attention, it soon becomes obvious that Doug is a very special wedding present for the (presumably) Princess Bride, Nahlis (Margaret Ivey).
But, after we briefly witness the worst (and funniest) wedding night scene in the history of marriage, we quickly figure out that Doug has been made available primarily to provide the kind of intimate servicing that Nahlis’ haughty bridegroom Beshrum (Damian Thompson) is either uninterested in or unable to perform.
Despite the difficulties inherent in watching a play conducted in a language that’s 75-80 percent unintelligible to the audience, it’s also easy to grasp that we’re right in the middle of a 180-degree satirical twist on the currently prevailing racial narrative in America—or at least on the “progressive” version of that narrative. Except that for fun, novelty and the sake of political satire, the racial roles in this play are completely reversed. The black “aliens” are the racists, and white Doug is the oppressed minority.
The “superior” black characters in this play seem largely to be speaking a language we don’t understand and are thus “alien” to us. But in context, these “aliens” are the normal ones and it’s Doug who’s the odd man out. He’s a novelty, perhaps something less than human. Since the other characters generally can’t understand him, he is presumed not to be very intelligent and is, as we soon learn, perhaps only good for one thing.
The play’s central twist—the clearly implied intent for Doug to service Nahlis—also devilishly flips another American racial cliché, namely the widely-held popular belief of the sexual super-potency of black males. In the case of “Wedding Gift,” however, it’s Nahlis, the black bride, who’s eager to get it on with Doug, her presumably super-potent white stud-in-waiting.
Once we’ve got this straight, the rest of Hutchinson’s play flows along nicely, even though her bewildering non-language can occasionally prove off-putting. Much of the action that follows—most humorous, some decidedly not—riffs off TV sitcoms and cinematic romantic farces.
The script supplies enough rudimentary English that we’re able to grasp the nature and meaning of increasingly complex events and relationships. In other words, we learn about Hutchinson’s strange society and its customs right along with Doug, who serves as our “central intelligence,” and at roughly his own learning speed because we know about what he knows.
A crucial turning point in this play occurs during Nahlis’ well-intentioned but disastrous attempt to bring her favorite “pet” along to dine with her royal parents—a mirror image of the classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” scenario. Predictably, this egalitarian gesture goes over like a proverbial lead balloon, leading to an unfortunate and unpleasant extended dénouement; namely, while the socially “unnatural” relationship between Nahlis and Doug leads to the enlightenment of both, it leads to tragedy and sorrow as well.
But the real mystery in this play concerns Doug’s search for objective truth. Doug initially has no clue as to how he managed to arrive on Planet X. His captors treat his presence as a bit exotic but not particularly unusual. Have these space aliens made it a regular habit to jump in their flying saucers, hover over Earth, and pick up a stray human here or there near Area 51?
Confused, Doug seems to recall his last fuzzy memory of home was a desperate search for his missing young daughter, Hannah. But why that and nothing more?
We get a few mysterious hints from at least one character who has a half-decent command of English. Onjah (Nafeesa Monroe), who appears to be a lady-in-waiting to Nahlis, insinuates she does have at least some knowledge of Doug’s likely past, given her own apparent status as a “naturalized citizen” of this strange planet as opposed to being a native-born member of the royal in-crowd.
But the real secret of Doug’s origin and earlier whereabouts is considerably more complex. In fact—shades of “Planet of the Apes”—can it be possible that Doug’s captors, those condescending ruling elites, may not actually be space aliens at all? It’s on this question, and a host of others, that “The Wedding Gift” draws to its ambiguous and unexpected conclusion.
Hutchinson’s dramatic skills are considerable, challenging audience views on current racial issues while not condemning anyone (at least not outright). She scores points without insulting people, leaving the floor open for discussion even as she makes her point of view quite clear.
Rather than taking the usual way out when it comes to racial polemics, Hutchinson takes the satirical route instead, adding a fair bit of theatricality and vaudeville-style double takes and slapstick elements to keep things funny and brisk without bogging her play down with dogma and preachiness, problems that tend to derail the apparent intent of “pen/man/ship.”
Helping it all work was a fine CATF cast which, in addition to Ivey, Babinsky, Monroe and Thompson also included a delightfully subversive performance by Edward O’Blenis who portrayed the court’s “Translating Attendant” and letter-perfect portrayals by Brian D. Coats and Bianca Laverne Jones of haughty, smug and occasionally volatile top-royals Torosh and Kamsuh respectively.
The entire crazy quilt of this production was expertly launched and kept in motion by director May Adrales, who must have had her hands full not only with the physical action but also with coaxing from the actors’ genuinely believable reactions and emotions despite Hutchison’s almost completely made-up alien lingo. Rehearsals must have been interesting.
I was fully prepared not to like this play, fearing I’d be inundated with more of the tedious, dogmatic progressivism that’s a prerequisite today for remaining employed in academia and the performing arts. Yes, there’s a strong message here. But Hutchinson is simply too skilled a dramatist to talk down to her audience and take the cheap way out.
Funny, bawdy, and oddly eloquent, Hutchinson’s “Wedding Gift” frequently takes big risks. But just as often, she makes the right choices. It’s probably not a play for everyone. But you should consider seeing it and judging for yourself.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Note: Language (such as it is), obvious sexual innuendo and occasional male nudity make this one for adults and not for pre-teens.
Details for CATF 2016:
When: All the plays we’re reviewing here are continuing in repertory through the end of this month. As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 opened last weekend and wraps on July 31. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.
Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while single tickets are often available, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article. That’s because those plays that start to develop a buzz (one or more often do) will start selling out fast as the word spreads.
If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.
Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.
If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.