Theatre Review | ‘The Past is the Past’ & 'Sarah and Sally' 

click to enlarge From left, David Shakes and Anderson Allen in 'The Past is the Past.'

PHOTO PROVIDED.

From left, David Shakes and Anderson Allen in 'The Past is the Past.'

December theater offerings are often haunted by ghosts – most famously, the Ghost of Christmas Past in that iconic Charles Dickens classic. The Avenue Blackbox offers a striking alternative to standard holiday fare with a double feature directed by David Shakes. Both one acts, which play only through December 10, feature visits from the past — but of a very different kind.

“The Past is the Past” by Richard Wesley was first produced in the 1970s and centers on a Black father meeting the son he abandoned. “Sarah and Sally,” a new play by Vickie Hampton, imagines a historical conversation between Thomas Jefferson's enslaved mistress Sally Hemings and Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited under the name Hottentot Venus. In both plays, two strangers meet for the first time and discover they share complicated connections.

This is the third of five productions in the Avenue Blackbox’s fifth, and most ambitious, season. The season consists of collaborations between seasoned theater artists and local youth who fill roles both on and off stage including front of house, concessions, and lighting board operator; and is led by artistic director, technical designer, and theater founder Reenah Golden.

You’d be forgiven for missing the opening beat of “The Past is the Past,” as the play begins with the house lights still on as Earl Davis (played by Shakes) takes the cover off a central pool table and sets up a game. It’s as though the audience, seated in the round, are in the pool hall with him and happen to eavesdrop when a young stranger named Eddy Green (played by Anderson Allen) enters and starts a conversation. Their casual chit-chat escalates when Eddy reveals himself to be Earl’s son, and the depth of hurt and longing within both men come to the surface.

The actors share an affectionate but restrained chemistry, suitable for the characters. Allen plays Eddy with a delicate balance of confidence and vulnerability. His body language suggests casual nonchalance, but his eyes are full of pain when Earl talks about the children he raised. Shakes plays Earl with an amiability that becomes frustrating as more layers of his character are revealed. “Don’t mess it all up like I did,” he advises Eddy, failing to realize he’s continuing to make a mess of his second chance.

The tight script thrives in its contradictions – these men are strangers but family; distant but close. A father’s absence can fill up a childhood. The past is the past, but we all know what’s past is prologue. Put all this on top of a game of pool, and you get a densely emotional burst of theater in under 25 minutes.

The preview night performance on Thursday was followed by an informal talkback, where the audience described the play as “real,” “heartbreaking,” and “powerful.” Shakes calls this short piece an appetizer for the hour-long one act “Sarah and Sally,” which was not presented at the preview night but also discussed during the talkback.

click to enlarge A still from the staged reading of 'Sarah and Sally.' - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • A still from the staged reading of 'Sarah and Sally.'
“Sarah and Sally” is set in the dressing room of Sarah Baartman (played by Kat Rina Davis), an indigenous Khoikhoi woman from the eastern cape of South Africa who was exhibited in European freak shows due to her body type — seen as exotic by Western audiences.

Sally Hemming (played by Avenue Fellow Arianna D’Arienzo), who gave birth to several of Jefferson's children, visits her dressing room to share experiences and dream of other possibilities for their futures.

Shakes first saw a reading of “Sarah and Sally” at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina in 2022. He has worked on two other plays by Hampton, and was drawn to this piece’s exploration of femininity, exploitation, and freedom.

“There’s a lot of yin and yang between the ladies as they share different things about their lives,” Shakes said.

Due to travel plans that conflicted with the rehearsal period and out of respect for not burdening his actors, Shakes chose to present the show as a staged reading. However, he said it’s a more dynamic staging — designed by The Avenue's Golden — than the version he saw at the festival.

The actors perform before a striking set of a wooden framed platform, where a chair sits on an artificial grass rug in front of a painting of trees. Choreographer and percussionist Adrianne Santucci, who choreographed the dance in the piece, joins the two actors onstage to read stage directions and play an African drum.

Shakes hopes the double feature will lead to conversations about gender, relationships, and family. “Great art leads to great conversation,” he said. “We thought a rich conversation could happen with either [play], or even together. How do men deal with emotions and relationships? How do women?”

Both one acts run as a double feature through Sunday, December 10. Tickets and more info at avenuetheatre.org.

Katherine Varga is a freelance contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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