Rachel Atkins', "Black Like Us" is an accomplished, important and challenging new play about a very old subject, race and what it means to us as a society and especially as individuals. A well-balanced and talented cast of eight women, guided by the sensitive and truthful direction of Jose Amador, give us that rare evening in the theatre when we emerge filled with important questions that the play does not answer for us, and that we will probably not answer quickly or easily. What does our racial heritage mean? Is it important? How is identity formed in individuals and in a culture? Can any one lie about who you are mean that you can never again truly be authentic? How do we judge who we judge and what does it mean about our relationship with them, and about our own character? Is our self definition really only our most acceptable fiction? How much of what we don't say may constitute our real feelings about uncomfortable or socially awkward subjects? And much more.
The story begins with two black sisters, Florence and Maxine, in the 1950's. Florence, much more light skinned than her sister, is packing to leave the family home. She also reveals to Maxine that she is planning to marry an Italian man, a white man, and in order to do that she is going to "pass" as Italian. Maxine, who is very comfortable and a bit self-righteous about being black is horrified (and perhaps a bit envious) and asks "What about when he meets your family?" Another lie of even greater magnitude will prevent that.
We then meet Florence's grandchildren, Sandra, Michelle and Amy, who have just discovered through documents in a locked box that their now deceased Grandmother has left them, that they are of mixed racial heritage. Sandra (Alyson Scadron Branner) is a rather cartoonish, privileged liberal who wants to explore Ancestry dot com in order to fill out all the fascinating empty spaces in her history. Michelle (Lindsay Evans) is much more reluctant and Amy (McKenna Turner) is absolutely contrary, for reasons that are quite surprising. What good would it do? Maxine's granddaughters Tanya (Marquicia Dominguez) and Denise (Kia Pierce) are quite comfortable living in the (possibly) racially evolved present, and they are more curious than passionate when Sandra insists that the whole third generation "family" meet at a Starbucks in Bellevue.
One of Amador's great accomplishments in this production is making each of these families, each of these generations, feel complete, intimate and believable, as well as different. All of the actors are very good, without a weak performer in the cast, but Chelsea Binta is especially effective as Florence. Although the script itself never really gives us enough insight into her inner life, we certainly feel the consequences of the choices she makes. Dior Davenport is also powerful as Maxine, although we don't really feel the full cost of her adamant embrace of her "Black and I'm Proud" conviction.
Again, there is no one weak in this ensemble, but I was particularly impressed with the later day interaction between Denise, a light skinned and proudly African-American woman and the inward, equally complex Amy. Both Kia Pierce as Denise and McKenna Turner as Amy made this relationship (for me) one of the most interesting in the play. That may well have been because we bring so many of our own questions, so many of our own presumptions to that encounter late in the play.
And that brings up what, to me, is the greatest accomplishment of this play. On a technical level the characters are quite well-drawn, the dialogue is deft and realistic and the action well-paced and compelling. But as much as what we are seeing in front of us, the real drama in "Black Like Us" is taking place in the audience. There are so many important and discomforting questions we are asking during this show. I felt like I was every character in the play, and that each of them was truly an individual and never a simple type, each filled with contradictions, personal relationships and unexpressed and unexplored facets to their own character. The history and contemporary dynamic of race in America is something that we all deal with every day. How much does my history, my heritage, influence who I am? How can any of it be discarded or discounted without being false to myself?
I don't think this is a perfect play. For me, the ending scene wasn't really satisfying, and more substance could be contained in many of the characters, especially Maxine and Sandra. That said, this is more authentic and genuinely dramatic than any new play I've seen in quite some time. Unlike many good plays that leave you with much to discuss over coffee after you leave the theater, I suspect this play will leave me with internal discussions and conflicts that I'll debate for the rest of my life. Once again, the tiny little Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill has brought us a bigger, more important show than any of the giant houses in Seattle.
PICTURED ABOVE: Florence (Chelsea Binta) & Maxine (Dior Davenport) in "Black Like Us" @ Annex Theatre
PHOTO BY: Shane Regan