By Stana Milanovich
Sha'Leah Nikole Stubblefield and Cherise Boothe
Photo by Cristian Kreckler
American Saga - Gunshot Medley: Part 1, by the brilliant young playwright Dionna Michelle Daniel, is the inaugural piece in the American Saga series designed to promote social change and healing in under-served communities by the staging of stories previously left behind or misrepresented. Set in an eerie graveyard and dancing between eras, the production is helped by an eloquent set design. Three large tombstones are scattered, behind which the shadows of live musicians play banjo, violin, djembe and African congo drums. A willow tree drapes across the stage, the scene of tragedy, alongside a strangely shaped stool with an equally terrible past, which is the only place of rest for the characters.
Interestingly, the only other set piece is human. Off to the side, but central to the story and action, the beautiful High Priestess, Sha'Leah Nikole Stubblefield personifies the winds of change, the trace of Africa and the spirit of Oya, the Yoruba deity of death and rebirth. Still, and silent but for song, her voice carries and echoes the drama within the production. The actress maintains focus throughout via a powerful gaze that carries the other characters on their journey, and holds them close when the pain is too much. Her flowered and flowing red dress, underneath which further bits of tragedy will be eventually uncovered, shines like a pulsing heart throughout the space without distracting from the action.
Cherise Boothe, Donathan Walters, and Sha'Leah Nikole Stubblefield
Photo by Cristian Kreckler
Somewhere in the hereafter, neither in this world or the next, three characters maintain their posts. George, played by Donathan Walters, holds up a light to guide souls of the departed. Frustrated by what he sees, and inspired by the voice of the High Priestess, he leaves for the world of the living, attempting to shine a light on the problem there. He returns off and on in increasing frustration, having tried to enlighten and inspire the people in an amalgam of African-American leadership from Garvey to the Black Panthers, to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and beyond. It is possible that the immense responsibility to those figures and movements threw off the performer or the playwright as these tend to be the weaker moments of the play. Walters gives good effort but perhaps needs more conviction or purpose, which, given that the character personifies action, feels odd.
The blithe-seeming Alvin, personified with near liquidity by Derek Jackson dances across the stage like a gusting wind himself, with an almost child-like insistence that love is the final answer. He picks up the detritus left behind and seems to hold onto present memories and moments, even while the other characters hope he never remembers his past. Yet the moments when he does, when he insists that the past be remembered, for instance, the stellar moment when he shares the remembrance of love with the character of Betty, or tells the tale of their horrifying real-world deaths, these are some of the strongest moments of the play. But the central figure, who carries the play and remains onstage throughout, is Betty, played with dazzling intensity and conviction by Cherise Boothe. Like the rest, the spirit of a former slave, memory and present reality knock Betty to the ground but cannot keep her there. A gunshot is heard, her character responds as if hit, she's knocked to the ground, and then left frantically cleaning up the invisible blood. Throughout the play, she is shot, knocked to her knees. Throughout the play she cleans. Throughout the play she rises again, wrings out the towel and gets on with the business of living, or undying, or death. What she is meant to embody beyond pain can only be the incredible resilience of African American women, and when the rag becomes her "brown baby", the embodiment of all her hopes and desires, it is clearly depicted and heartrendingly felt. When Alvin brings a child's toy gun for Betty to clean, the coin might not have dropped. But when he next brings a bloodied packet of Skittles, it's very clear what these objects are and the real-life deaths they represent. As time goes on and the gunshots increase in volume and intensity, the cleaning becomes increasingly desperate, and the litany of real-world names of the dead rolls as endless as the detritus of black lives ended by systemic violence. The moment she stops ends the play, and requires our intense focus.
Sha'Leah Nikole Stubblefield
Photo by Cristian KrecklerAt first it might seem that the litmus test for this play would be a tolerance for ambiguity and metaphor. Certainly, the first time Betty suffered a gunshot, someone broke into a nervous titter behind me. However, later in the production, as the pain of Betty's story became more clear, that same voice wept openly. The beauty of this play might be in its ability to teach the audience how to hear what it has to say. Certainly, throughout the story, there were moments that resonated deeply: the need to craft a bulletproof baby registered audibly with the audience, the collective sigh after the memory of love, the laughter and music, the strong desire for homecoming, the bitterness of injustice. By the end, the audience breathed with the performer. That is a powerful play. The running time is short, and the pacing brisk.
In October the project plans to journey to Watts (WLCAC), where the community will no doubt welcome it with open arms. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the play is meant to address only a specific community. While it nurtures and speaks to the pained, part of the message is that America as a whole needs to listen. So, if you've ever put up a Black Lives Matter sticker on your social media page, or maybe just wondered what could be done, go see the play. Support this voice. Listen.
American Saga - Gunshot Medley: Part 1 plays at the Rogue Machine in the Met Theatre, 1089 N Oxford Avenue, through Sep 23 before moving to the WLCAC theatre Oct 5 -14. For reservations call 855-585-5185 or visit