I’m going to get straight to the point: Run, go see James Sheldon’s “Reparations,” showing now at The Billie Holiday Theatre!
As the first work produced by a playwright of non-African descent in the theater’s 47-year history, Reparations makes its world debut as the centerpiece of the New Window’s Festival, a new campaign by The Billie that explores intersectionality of identity while spotlighting perspectives not historically presented.
In the case of reparations, a topic that— for many African-Americans— has become at once “hot-button” and well-worn, what I expected was a stage narrative around the merits and pitfalls of financial restitution for the descendants of American slaves. But the play was so much more.
Instead, Tony Award-nominee Michele Shay, the play’s director, who also directed the AUDELCO Award-winning Best Revival of the Year, The Old Settler, delivered from Sheldon’s script a theatrical reflection on two very common denominators of our human condition: trauma and the need for reconciliation. The story dealt with matters of the heart, and Shay handled the story as carefully as a heart surgeon would a patient.
Set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Reparations tells the story of a recently widowed white book editor– Ginny Pleasance, played by Alexandra Neil– who invites a younger black writer— Reg Ambrose, played by Kamal Bolden– to her apartment. The story takes a dramatic turn when their dreamy night of passion turns into an unexpected nightmare: Truths are revealed and reality sets in after he threatens to blackmail her with a dark secret. Hence, the settup for his argument for reparations.
“Self-delusion is the dearest and deadliest contraband,” Ginny repeats a few times throughout the play.
Two more characters are introduced: Alistair Jacobs, played by Gys de Villiers; and his wife, Millie Jacobs, played by Lisa Arrindell. Soon, we learn everyone holds a dark secret. These dark secrets are their personal trauma. Self-delusion becomes the shield from that trauma. And reconciliation or the need to be made whole again becomes the pursuit.
Their characters are presented, in a way, as American stereotypes that play off the social dynamics of class, race and sexuality. These social constructs become critical access points for the audience, as it latches on to one identity over another. But the writing is so carefully nuanced, even the caricatures for whom we tend to assign emotions (i.e. impatience for “the fragile, needy white woman” or disdain for “the use-her-and-abuse-her black man”), we instead see them for who they actually are: humans being human.
In this way, the word “reparations” becomes less polarizing and more galvanizing, as we realize that we’re all humans, pretty much in the same boat, in need of some form of repair. At most, the play offers a chance to relax for a moment away from the tightly wound idea of financial recompense and at the very least breath into a different point of reference, which is personal redemption– a cause that binds us all.
Actor Kamal Bolden plays the charming, intelligent and very cunning young author with emotional depth and definiteness; he commands the stage in a way reminiscent of Will Smith’s character, Paul, in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. Actress Alexandra Neil plays the fragile-yet-steely widow with unwavering sincerity and astute complexity; her up-front and honest portrayal endears you enough to want to befriend her character, if only to offer her a tight hug.
Actress Lisa Arrindell is entirely believable as the Nigerian doctor and scholarly socialite; she nailed the British-Nigerian accent and is beautiful and captivating to watch, as a good deal of her acting is physical– in her body language and facial expressions. And actor Gys de Villiers played the haughty British publisher with such rigor and intensity you’d be hard-pressed to imagine him in any other role. His character was familiar, one we all know well; yet, he managed to lend it a few unexpected layers.
The soundtrack and lighting, the details in the design and staging, were all impeccable and a wonderful complement to the superb writing, acting and direction.
Brooklyn, grab your tickets before the play’s conclusion on November 24.
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