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Beate Hein Bennett

“Dead and Breathing” by Chisa Hutchinson


October 28-November 24, 2015
“Dead and Breathing” by Chisa Hutchinson
A New York City Premiere off Broadway Production
Presented by National Black Theatre at
National Black Theatre, 2031 Fifth Avenue
(btw. 125th and 126th Street)
Thurs – Sat & Mon: 7:30, Sat: 2 PM, Sun: 4 PM
Tickets: $30-50 (Special rates for groups, seniors & students)
212-722-3800/ www.nationalblacktheatre.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, November 13, 2015

Lizan Mitchell (Carolyn) and Nikki E. Walter (Veronika,
the nurse). Photo by Christine Jean Chambers.

As one enters the theater lobby on the third floor of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s Black National Theatre building, one is invited to a small multi-media exhibit around the theme of identity labels. The core question centers on how our self-definition and labeling by others have positive and negative social and psychological consequences. It is a fitting introduction to the multilayered theme of the two character play we are about to see.

The spacious black box theater is divided up for this play into two audience sections placed at right angles to each other and facing an open wide stage space that is dominated in the center by a large elegant bed flanked by two night-tables and lamps, a dressing table facing the audience on one side and an arm chair facing the bed on the other side. Along the wall behind the bed hang a number of variously sized empty gilded frames suspended at various levels. Off to stage left on a slightly elevated platform a fully equipped tiled bathroom is furnished with a claw-foot bathtub, a sink and mirror, a toilet, and a gorgeous Tiffany style stained glass window with an ornate “W” in the centre. Stage right a door leads through a suggested vestibule to off-stage. A subtle red frame borders the bedroom area on the top and the sides. The exquisite set design by Maruti Evans with gentle lighting by Alan C. Edwards leaves no doubt that we are in the home of a wealthy person with taste.

A few strains of blues open the scene: one woman reclines in the bathtub filled to the brim with foamy water, her back to the audience, only her head visible; the other woman, a visiting nurse washes her vigorously while delivering a feisty litany describing the sundry oddities a nurse might encounter caring for the elderly. Her entertaining tirade is disrupted by the doorbell, and as she leaves the elderly lady in the bathtub, she enjoins her not “to go slipping off” while she is away. Promptly, the bather slides under water but pushes herself back up after a few moments. She climbs with some effort out of the tub, wraps herself in a luxurious towel and proceeds to check her pharmaceutical supply on the sink, rattling the bottles until she finds the one she wants to open, can’t open it, flings it with a “fuck you” to the ground, discovers the hairdryer, plugs it in, and approaches the tub hairdryer in hand. Just then the nurse returns, grasps the situation, takes the hairdryer out of her hands and proceeds to put the old woman back into the tub, all the while praising the gorgeous features of the uniformed deliveryman whom she just saw. This is the beginning of the high octane dialogue and action that ensues subsequently between the two women. Under the direction of Jonathan McCrory, the duologue bristles with dynamic variety and humor as well as pathos.

Lizan Mitchell (Carolyn) and Nikki E. Walter (Veronika,
the nurse). Photo by Christine Jean Chambers.

Carolyn Whitlock, the elderly rich woman, purportedly suffering from end-stage uterine cancer, is played by Lizan Mitchell with tremendous vocal and physical energy and emotional intensity. Veronika-- Veroni-KA with the “dumpster mouth,” as Carolyn likes to mock her-- is the unflappable visiting nurse with strong hands and words, common sense as well as culinary gifts; Nikki E. Walter plays her with a mix of simple grace and strength of character. She does not give in to Carolyn’s taunts but gives back as good as she gets. And yet beyond the banter, there emerges a deeper layer of existential trauma experienced by both characters. Carolyn, the rich woman feels that she is mean to the core and has lived a life destroying others and ultimately empty of value—she wants to end it all since she feels the cancer is eating her from the inside anyway. She tries to con Veronika into helping her to end it with a fatal but undetectable injection. Her tool of temptation? She has made her into the sole beneficiary of her wealth and home so that Veronika, whose poverty she had mocked at first, could open a home for children with AIDS.

However, Veronika is a force of Life and a woman of strong faith. In the course of ninety relentless minutes the play twists and turns through a number of absurdly funny as well as deeply touching revelations about the life of each character until the two ultimate revelations that have to do with the presumed versus the actual identifying label under which each of them operated. I will not reveal the final coup de theatre but urge you to see this life affirming play by making your way uptown for a riveting performance.

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