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Black Poetry Theatre (BPT) presented a workshop reading of the new script Tend to Your Own House at The ArtsCenter as part of BPT's "Flip the Script" programming. I'm afraid the evening exhibited staging difficulties and script mismanagement. And, though the audience was small for Act I, it was even smaller for Act II. The performance was not without its good points. BPT presented a script that co-mingles classical theatre with modern music and poetry, the company gives us a good start on what just might be an interesting piece of theatre very soon.
There are two things to remember: First, BPT has never done this before. Second, though the show was originally planned for a three-performance weekend, BPT's artistic staff ultimately decided to present the reading on one night only.
Tend to Your Own House is a four-scene performance about a despicable character named Georgina (Chelsea Nnani) and her penchant for meddling in the affairs of others. Georgina's style of meddling is not even the "you've got a problem, here let me help" kind of meddling; hers is more the style of "let's put these two wet cats in a bag together, just to see what happens" kind of malicious meddling that destroys relationships. In Georgina's case, those relationships are the supposedly most near and dear to her.
We first meet Georgina in the audience of an open mike night at JJ's Tavern, where local poets come to read their poetry to an interested and vocal audience. We hear three very different styles of poet: the existential, the narcissistic, and the dark. Judging from the audience reaction, the crowd loved the dark poet, hated the narcissistic one, and could not even understand the existential one. But once the comments from this trio die down, a young man takes the stage and stands before the mike. This young man is Henry (Raenique Dawson), and he comes wearing his heart on his sleeve. He reads a love poem to his secret love, whom he cannot have, about the emotional turmoil she is causing him. Unfortunately, Henry uses the woman's real name, titling the work only "Aurora." Also unfortunately, Georgina knows this poet, this woman, and her husband. Aurora happens to be one of Georgina's "closest" friends.
You can guess the rest. Ultimately the situation culminates in a showdown between Henry and Aurora's husband, Teddy (Lee Chapman); Aurora (Virginia Chandler) enters to find Teddy on the floor after an altercation breaks out between the two. But, interestingly, Regina's intent is foiled, and the three end the scene as fast friends. That's Act I.
Act II shows Georgina's tactics as she insinuates herself into another couple's lives, sowing discord where there was none. In this scene, she tries to get Margaret (Mandy Robertson) to believe her best friend Jakiya (Rae Johnson) is fooling around with her husband, Kendrick (Stephanie Martinez). But it doesn't work this time, either; all it gets Georgina is a polite but firm invitation to leave.
In the closing scene, Georgina gets her comeuppance when she confronts The Actress (also played by Raenique Dawson), who puts Georgina firmly in her place. Georgina goes to see this actress in order to demand that the thespian return Georgina's husband to her. But again, Georgina's best-laid plans go wildly astray, as this savvy and sassy beauty turns the table on Georgina and tells her to "Tend to your own house."
In order to create this script, BPT has taken situations from four different classic works. Each of these works is around a century old: A Poet's Heart, written by Maxwell Bodenheim (1918); How He Lied to Her Husband, by George Bernard Shaw (1904); He Said She Said, by Alice Gerstenberg (1922); and, A Matter of Husbands, penned by Ferenc Molnar, translated by Benjamin Glazer (1923). As previously mentioned, modern music and the spoken word were added to bring the resulting work into the present and to add the particular flavor that BPT wished it to have.
If the cast had had the time truly to enter into this script, I think there might have been some success in this workshop production. As it was, however, that was not the case. Several things happened to mar the production, including The Moving Microphone, The Script Screw-up, and The Errant Mustache. Poet K. Lambity, who read from works she wrote specifically for this production, came from backstage to read a poem after each scene. This would have been fine, except that she insisted on bringing the mike (and its bulky stand) on stage with her every time, turning it on, waiting for the resulting hum, and only then beginning her reading. Far better a situation would have been had if the mike had simply remained stage left, in the dark, and turned on, waiting for her, so she could simply appear and begin, without all the rigmarole. The Script Screw-up came when, during what should have been an intimate and emotionally charged scene between Henry and Aurora, the two of them lost their places, and precious time and energy were wasted as they valiantly struggled to get straight again. Finally, Henry's moustache, a long and heavy thing worn as an obvious ploy to hide the fact that Henry was being played by a woman, refused to stay attached to Dawson's upper lip. It became extremely difficult for her to try to handle both this and a script at the same time.
These were problems that were bound to come up, and a company that had done this kind of thing before would have known how to handle them. Since this was BPT's first gig of this type, these things got overlooked. These problems, along with the fact that many seemed to be reading their scripts for the first time, made for a less than satisfactory performance, so much so that the patron seated to my right left the show at intermission and did not return. When the audience only numbers about a dozen, any absence is truly felt. But I encourage BPT to continue with its "Flip the Script" program. These things always get better with practice.
The Black Poetry Theatre troupe is based in Durham. It was created in 2008 by Dasan Ahanu and Church Da'Poet. The company is housed in the Haiti Heritage Center. You can read more about the troupe on their website, http://www.BlackPoetryTheatre.com.