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Beate Hein Bennett;

“A Distant Relationship to Happiness…”
a photograph / lovers in motion

Feb. 5 – Feb. 29, 2020
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, New York, NY
Presented by The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (necinc.org)
Thurs. – Sat. @ 7 PM, Sun. @ 3 PM
$25 gen. adm.; $20 seniors, students, and groups of ten and more
Box office: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1023521; tel.: 866-811-4111
Group sales: 212-580-9624
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 8, 2020

L-R: Nya Bowman, Marc Deliz, Mystie Galloway, Imana Breux, Adrian Washington.

Ntozake Shange, who passed away in October 2019, had written “a photograph / lovers in motion / a study in cruelty” in 1977 in a similar style as her immensely successful choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf” that had its New York premiere in 1976 in New York, produced by The New Federal Theatre under Woodie King Jr. at the Henry Street Settlement. In 1977 NFT in collaboration with Josef Papp’s Public Theater moved “for colored girls…” to Broadway where it became the longest running straight play by an African American author. In 1977 The Public Theater also first produced the present play under the title “a portrait / a study in cruelty;” it was revised and produced in 1982 at the Houston Ensemble Theater under its current title, “a photograph / lovers in motion.” (By the way, Ntozake Shange, an adopted Xhosa and Zulu name, did not use capital letters in her plays because she considered them a symbol of inequality.)

L-R: Imana Breux, Mystie Galloway, Nya Bowman, Marc Deliz, Adrian Washington.

“a photograph…” has been re-imagined/adapted and directed by Ifa Bayeza, Ntozake Shange’s sister and frequent collaborator, with music composed by shange’s contemporary David Murray, who had entered the New York jazz scene with his octet in the mid 70s. The play is set in the late 70s and deals with the raw emotions of African Americans, men and women, as they struggle with their legacy of interracial violence, sexual brutalization and self-hatred, the economic advances of a Black middle class whose identity as Blacks is contested by the Black Power movement, and the problematic social relationship between African Americans and white integrationists who had fought for equal justice alongside Blacks during and after the violent Civil Rights movement in the 60s.


Imana Breaux as Michael.

All these currents underlie the relationships among the five characters. There is Michael, a young Black woman and aspiring dancer, performed by spell-binding Imana Breaux whose delicate movement and speaking voice come from deep within her core.

Adrian Washington as Sean David.

Her lover, Sean David, is a photographer with a mission to portray black life as real experience in all its authentic raw suffering. Adrain Washington, a tall and impressive actor gives the role the required wide range of emotions: erotic charm, self-defensiveness, artistic ambitions, and deep suffering rooted in a brutal childhood.

Nya Bowman as Nevada

He is involved with two other women: first, there is his female “sponsor” the well-to-do Black socialite Nevada, played by a strong Nya Bowman with the veneer of arrogance that shatters under pressure to reveal an insecure lonely woman. And then there is Claire, a gorgeous social butterfly with erotic power that threatens not only herself but overwhelms and alienates those who are in her orbit—I am reminded of a moth flying into the fire that consumes it.

Mystie Galloway as Claire

Mystie Galloway lends her character feline beauty and ferocity. The choreopoemic structure of the play demands from the three women not only verbal agility but also distinct characterizations through dance movement; all three are fabulous dancers that master styles ranging from Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, to African earth-drumming footwork, to jazzy chorus line coordination. There is one other male character, Earl, who mingles with the others as friend, sometimes in need and sometimes interfering. He is the white man who reflects the complicated relationship between the races, serving at times as the butt of a joke, or the object of resentment.

Marc Deliz and Nya Bowman

Marc Deliz delivers the difficult task of playing a character that was left underdeveloped by shange while serving as a catalyst in scenes that lay bare the inner turmoil and confusions that the black characters feel about themselves and towards society at large. In the course of two acts, the encounters among the five characters are like a series of distinct photographs that capture different phases in their love lives—the final image in the end feels not so much as a resolution but rather like looking at an arbitrary choice of a photograph of lovers who will stay in motion.

The wide stage of Theatre 80 St. Marks is left mostly empty. A skeletal set designed by Chris Cumberbatch with scenic artists Angel Smith and Charles Mickens and lighting design by Melody A. Beal with associate Omar Jaslin allows enough space for the excellent choreography by Leslie Dockery to unfold. Katherine Roberson’s handsome costume design is basic modern, with colorful touches of fantasy, capturing character distinctions. The program points out that the place is a San Francisco Apartment—San Francisco was Shange’s first theatrical home—and that the action should “emerge like a photograph developing [with] the sensory experience: a DJ mix of past and future.” Ifa Bayeza’s direction uses the space in a fluid manner but she also creates for the actors still points that allow for powerful emotional moments to crystallize. Dramaturg Gaven D. Trinidad points out: “The intergenerational conversations among the production’s black and POC artists have developed the team’s understanding of legacy, artistic families, and ‘embodying our histories’ which is coded in the DNA of this company and this production.” Judging by the diversity of the audience attending and the conversations overheard, the NEC mission and Shange’s artistry speaks to us still.

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