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Burning Coal Theatre Company opened two plays by Dael Orlandersmith this weekend in rotating virtual repertory. The program, called "Conversations I Always Wanted to Have," began with the one-woman show Forever, a "semi-autobiographical work" performed by Emilia "MeMe" Cowans-Taylor and directed by Jordan Lichtenheld. Forever details a fraught relationship* between a mother and daughter in East Harlem that mourns women who were forced to give up their girlhood and trauma that curses multiple generations. (A note: this review will acknowledge the topics of child abuse and rape, which are explicitly discussed in this play.)
As Burning Coal's first livestreamed production of 2021, Forever utilizes four different camera angles placed around the thrust stage at its Murphey School performance space, following Cowans-Taylor's movement across parts of the stage that represented different settings in the story of a woman's recollection of her abusive mother and the night she was raped by a stranger in her own bedroom. The set (designed by Nadir Bey) is relatively sparse: a few gravestones flanking a recessed kitchen table echoing the central, traumatic memories that color the main character's experiences. While the gravestones represent the future, they also are an ever-present reminder of the past. They play alternate roles as hopeful symbols of kindred spirits as well as markers of a trauma that is never quite fully buried throughout our protagonist’s life. Similarly, the lighting design (conceived by Matthew Adelson), is simple and yet incredibly clever, conveying memory "snapshots," dreamy colors, and twinkling lights of a romantic Paris, and even a stark outline of a table in a morgue.
The main character begins her story as she strolls through Père Lachaise Cemetery, visiting the graves of famous artists who have become her chosen family. There are shadows of her childhood that creep through her narration, a stream of consciousness growing out of people-watching that leads us deeper and deeper into a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship. As the play progresses, our storyteller steps in and out of memories, enveloped by musical works that help contextualize her memories (a nod to sound designer Juan Isler, who has curated a perfect backdrop of music).
Cowans-Taylor was passionate and emotive as she gracefully moved from one memory to the next, voicing clear character changes between the storyteller, her mother, her childhood friend, and many others. The contrast between the artistic ideal of Paris and her "pee-yellow, mouse-infested" childhood home was ever-present in the details that jumped out of Cowans-Taylor's difficult ninety-minute performance.
Some of the more disturbing moments, although difficult to experience, were given their time and power to sink in. The visceral, detailed experience of being raped in her own bed by a strange man was excruciatingly narrated as if the storyteller was actively experiencing the moment, and it was followed by a dark, contemplative pause -- the only one of its kind in the whole show, but a much-needed moment of silence. Cowans-Taylor's performance was devastating and hard to watch in the sense that it felt so real.
The few hopeful, beautiful moments in the show were even more meaningful as compared to the heartbreaking experiences they surrounded, and Cowans-Taylor breathed vibrancy and honesty into every one. The show explores closure and forgiveness, not excusing the mother's behavior but eventually explaining the path the storyteller takes to acknowledge her mother's presence in her life.
As was to be expected, there were some issues with the actual livestream process that shortchanged the story in a couple of places, but everyone is still adjusting to a forced shift in production media and the fact that a one-woman play can be livestreamed at all during a global pandemic is miraculous. The microphone leveling was subpar, unable to keep up with Cowans-Taylor's varied dynamics of speech -- especially when she raised her voice -- and there were occasional hitches and shudders from the cameras as they panned to keep up with her movement or re-center her in the frame. This was occasionally distracting, as it necessitated volume adjustments throughout some of the more turbulent scenes when the main character directly screams at her mother or vice-versa. Overall, the acting was superb and outweighed the technical issues, resulting in a unique and powerful production.
Forever’s companion show in Burning Coal's assemblage, Until the Flood, premiered Friday, January 29 and will be reviewed on this site shortly. This charged program,* performed by Byron Jennings and directed by Renee Nixon, is a play comprised of interviews conducted by Orlandersmith with residents of Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown. The two shows will rotate in livestream performances until February 14. For specific dates and performance times, please view the sidebar.
*Forever contains discussions of child abuse, rape, and strong language. Until the Flood also uses strong language and covers sensitive topics and frank discussions of race and violence.