Short Plays That Stretch Your Mind

Renaissance Theaterworks offers three works by playwrights of color. It’s an adventure.

By - Dec 11th, 2020 08:45 am
Belonging. Photo from Renaissance Theaterworks.

Belonging. Photo from Renaissance Theaterworks.

At this moment in pandemic time, theater companies generally try to lure you back through an online production based on holiday themes. Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee is trying something else.

It has taken three short plays (about an hour for all) reflecting acclaimed Black and brown playwrights slapping their surreal musings right up against natural acting situations, stretching our imagination the way a work for the stage should.

Having worked with Outer Loop Theater Experience to manhandle the technicalities, and Broadway on Demand as its host, Renaissance is taking a chance with cerebral and emotional daring, the sort progressive live theater aims at. But online we are a bit more remote and observe somewhat coldly on the action. We shouldn’t spend any time worrying about the actors’ space problems.

We have to endure or ignore those tell-tale outlines of blurred hands and shadows that expose the green screen trickery of moving actors around – especially when the surreal edges of the scripts encourage audacious floating around or macabre ideas, like the soot from a corpse sitting on a kitchen table. These plays require floating above the mundane, not being forced back into it.

The plays as a collective are rather preciously titled Belonging and in quite different veins each does raise questions about who belongs where. But what ties them together is how they use surreal outlines as a contrast to naturalism – a way to expose genuine human dilemmas and conflicts.

The most outrageous in concept is Jorge Rivera’s The Winged Man. To the dismay of her mother and a friend who both think the schoolgirl has just been “knocked up” by a local guy, she describes the father as having wings and roots in the kingdoms of God and birds.

Sometimes she is literally up a tree (moments when the clumsiness of the green screen effects under director Melanie Queponds really hurt our involvement) and often the conversants in this play seem distracted by their inability to directly look at each other, talking vaguely in each other’s direction given the staging from different perspectives. This really hurts Leslye Martinez, made up to seem dowdy as the pregnant girl. She is supposed to seem other worldly while her friend, actress Ashley Rodriguez, and mother, Isabel Quintero, offer all too earthbound and all too human advice.

Playwright Rivera, the only male writer in Belonging and a student of “magical realism,” a literary school that assumes a level of magic or fantasy in human behavior, suggests in his occasional bouts of blackout poetry that we should embrace the impossible. I don’t think he meant the inability of this piece to connect with the audience since, paradoxically, live theater would relieve it of the sense of gimmickry and allow our imaginations to leap with the concept – it’s one of the things live theater does best.

More interesting, and most like a piece of interlude theater in one constricted locale, is Poof! by well-known playwright Lynn Nottage. She takes a standard domestic abuse situation to have comedic fun when the nasty husband literally explodes into a pile of ashes. That leaves actress Melody Betts – well-cast for her down-home delivery and personality — to act like many an abused housewife would: brief remorse, then wonder, then a sense of freedom. Sharing that journey is her disbelieving next door neighbor (in real life her roommate, Lachrisa Grandberry, almost too like Melody in casting but this proximity lets director Marti Gobel choreograph this as a comic two hander). The cadences are predictable, like a comedy routine between veterans, pretending to deeper meaning.

The best piece features a husband-and-wife actor team portraying in rapid sequence the life together they are going to miss. All of the Everything – courtship, marriage, children, old age – is explored in snatches of familiar dialogue, carrying them through a future existence they long for as they are driving through a Black Lives Matter confrontation with the police.

The story culminates in an actual video from a recent event, the onstage dialogue echoing real life, but playwright Alayna Jacqueline and director Jamil A.C. Mangan make this a powerful distillation of the kick in the head that many families feel today as unforeseen events make their future fly away.

Director Mangan also uses green screen methods intelligently, with the actors as if in a car wiping our screen to produce new backgrounds. This helps flash the couple through time and space in a way that fits the medium and actually adds an element of connection that live theater cannot.

It is also well acted by Malkia Stampley and Chiké Johnson, both eminently familiar to Milwaukee audiences. With only a touch of playing larger than the home computer screen needs, they find emotional moments that typify the pressures so many families feel today. In that sense it is less surreal and more immediate than the other pieces.

The first weekend of shows was promoted as live events, but from Dec. 9-13 and again Dec. 16-20 the plays in more rapid sequence are waiting at the Broadway on Demand vault to be accessed, Renaissance is recommending that patrons click on its own website first, and then follow instructions to Broadway on Demand’s entry system. Tickets are $40, but $20 for those under 40 and $10 for students and educators. Or contact

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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