Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

every tongue confess

Also see Susan's review of Walter Cronkite is Dead

Autumn Hurlbert and
Phylicia Rashad

Before talking about every tongue confess, the inaugural work in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater, one must describe this extraordinary new theater space. The viewer enters through a spiral upward ramp that suggests walking into a seashell, leading toward a comforting oval space sheltered from external noise, framed with woven walls of dark wood. Artistic Director Molly Smith says in her program notes: "I believe that theaters are churches—places of reflection where we go to listen, learn and meditate on our lives through the stories told on stage." This elegant 200-seat space fits that definition.

Marcus Gardley's play—highly ambitious in its consideration of generational patterns and the understanding that nothing about life is truly black and white—succeeds in parts but does not completely jell. While it's a work in progress, it is also an immersive experience well worth participating in.

The setting is rural Alabama in 1996, during a period of church burnings in the South. Gardley and director Kenny Leon have assembled a cast of powerful performers who ably incorporate song and dance into the rich theatrical structure.

The action begins with a strong-voiced woman (Crystal Fox) leading services in the Winged Elm Baptist Church in tiny Boligee, Alabama, on a sweltering summer morning. Soon, however, she and two men of the congregation (Eugene Lee, E. Roger Mitchell) realize that someone has set fire to the church and they are trapped inside. In the manner of the biblical story of three godly men who survive being thrown into a fiery furnace, these congregants keep themselves alive by sharing the stories of people whose internal rages may have some relation to the rash of arson fires.

This is a world where a gravedigger named Jeremiah (Lee) finds a singing Bible in an open grave; a gravely wounded woman (Leslie Kritzer) sends her spirit to protect her teenage daughter (Autumn Hurlbert), now meeting the father she never knew (Jim Ireland); and Mother Sister (Phylicia Rashad), preacher of the Boligee church, has second sight and can cure through laying on of hands but also enjoys the earthly pleasure of a visiting bluesman (Jonathan Peck).

Through incantatory language and an overall sense of heightened reality, Gardley shows the recurrence of certain themes: difficult relationships between lovers of different races; people wanting to transcend their skin color and concentrate on their interior qualities (one character asks, "Don't you wish we were all the color of water?"); and children traumatized by witnessing acts of violence.

While all the performers are strong, Rashad, Fox and Hurlbert provide the most spellbinding moments in speech and song. Kritzer and Ireland play characters that at first seem cartoonish, but develop in deep and unexpected ways.

Arena Stage
every tongue confess
November 9th —January 2nd, 2011
By Marcus Gardley
Missionary/Tender Meeks: Crystal Fox
Elder/Jeremiah: Eugene Lee
Brother/Bobby: E. Roger Mitchell
Bernadette: Leslie Kritzer
Benny Pride: Autumn Hurlbert
Shadrack: Jason Dirden
Mother Sister: Phylicia Rashad
Stoker Pride: Jim Ireland
Blacksmith: Jonathan Peck
Directed by Kenny Leon
Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Joan Marcus