Playwright(s): Kevin Demoan Edwards and Katherine George
Director: Arielle Sosland
Off Off Broadway at The Steve and Marie Sgouros Theater 115 MacDougal Street
Review by: Rachel E. Diken
Black & Blue, the first full-length play by writer/producer Kevin Demoan Edwards, takes on the charged dynamics of the Black Lives Matter movement and its rejoinder, the Blue Lives Matter movement. Through the portrayal of two couples on respective sides of the matter (supported by a shifting-identitied ensemble), Edwards goes beyond giving voice and face to the movements’ tangential perspectives and sits us front-row to a series of their combustive interactions. In a quickly-flowing sequence of plot advances, we witness the characters struggling with the feelings informed by their reality, while steadily conflicted as each conversation initiates a layer of compassion for their supposed opposition.
The play was categorized as “drama / spoken word / poetry” at the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, where it premiered. The spoken word segments (written by Katherine George) include monologues and ensemble pieces, and punctuate the performance by focusing attention and tone during scene transitions. Although a visual reprieve from the full scenes – a single actor in spotlight stage left – our other senses are grabbed as though by the shirtcollar from the emotion and delivery of the poetry. The resulting reprieve-as-escalation effect is appropriate for the subject matter, and an apt directorial choice by Arielle Sosland. As someone who identifies as a poet, I experienced both a partiality to the concept of spoken word imbedded in dramatic theater and an apprehension for its successful integration in the performance’s flow. For my taste, Black & Blue pulls it off.
A surprising range of context is achieved with minimal set design and props, and mention is definitely due to Jovan Rodriguez and Gloria Mendoza’s ingenuity. The actors consistently repurpose and rearrange a few key items against the constant backdrop of hanging picture frames that are at different times filled with art, faces of the ensemble, and empty space. The use of frame as visual metaphor was smart and added an appreciated layer of implication to its functionality on set.
One ensemble highlight (David J. Cork, Sergio Jimenez, Christopher Kuiken, Alexis Lounsbury, Raquel Palmas) was the “Facebook court”, where the play’s expository and orbital tragedy (a white female cop shooting an unarmed black man) is “tried” via social media – a phenomenon all too familiar, yet powerfully presented on stage. The other ensemble piece of note takes place on a subway car and features an exchange between a Black Panther (the casting call description says it all: “For those of you from NYC, he’s ‘that guy’ from the Q train. Literally.”) and a black woman, both of whom give impassioned speeches that climax with a plea for the case of the black woman as “the most hated person” which prompts a collective sigh of compassion, emitted from subway passengers and audience members alike.
Black & Blue’s capable exploration of gender dynamics as a minor key is another testament to Edwards’ promise as a playwright. The thread is traceable and relevant (as opposed to coming across as token or trying-to-do-too-much) and deftly maneuvered through the central theme. In one scene, a health emergency of a female lead swiftly brings a heated “black vs. blue” dispute between leading men to a sobering moment of synchronized admission: “it’s my fault”. Although frustration is expressed indiscriminately, the males most visibly externalize and internalize outright anger (the sane initial human response to injustice), while the women intuitively process emotion faster and default into agents of conciliation.
Perhaps the most resounding scene is our split-stage view into the living rooms of leading Black Lives Matter activist Ty and his wife Maya (played by Ty Gailloux and Mildred Victoria) and their (white) leading counterparts, friend and colleague Kristen and her cop husband Mike (played by Emma Tracy Moore and Chase Burnett). The private discourse of the black-lives couple is, verbatim, the exact conversation of the blue-lives couple. Edwards assumes the role of expert conductor, alternating the lines between couples to demonstrate their interchangeability. What’s impressive is not the employment of this common orchestral device itself, but rather the depth and duration for which the alternation is sustained — the effect of which is a heavy settling of their struggles’ disconcerting parallel that lasts long after the performance had ended.
Despite its indisputable weight, Black & Blue achieves humor in genuine laugh-out-loud moments. For relevance and complexity of subject matter, range of emotion and perspective, and full utilization of (and even pushing a bit further) theater’s capacities as a medium, Edwards has earned his place as a playwright.