Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Spittin' Seeds is less a play than a collage illustrating and celebrating the experience of life in the Rondo neighborhood, in which Penumbra sits. Rondo has received attention over the past decades for the destruction of its close-nit, high functioning African-American community when its core was bulldozed in the 1960s to enable construction of Interstate 94 between the Twin Cities' two downtowns. Even six decades later, the material cost and human dislocation wrought by that project takes a toll. Spittin' Seeds doesn't in any way conceal those open wounds; it doesn't dwell on losses. Instead, it showcases examples of resurgent humanity through friendship, love, neighborliness, and communion with the natural world.
Playwright Erin Sharkey has written Spittin' Seeds, but Harrison David Rivers is listed in the credits as the production's "curator," and it is clear after a viewing of the work that Rivers' title is apt, for there are disparate parts–some dialogue-driven scenes, some pure dance, some ritualistic. The parts are each presented with grace and artistry. They combine to present different facets of life in Rondo. Some of the segments are realistic, some abstract, some take a dip into the realm of the supernatural. Contact with nature, be it the world of birds, of growing vegetables, of the stars in the sky or any other natural element, is a recurring chord.
We are met by a large tree set on one side of the stage, fashioned, it appears, of coiled ropes, its roots visible beneath ground level, and stretching up and out, a canopy of life. In the opening, veteran actor James Craven seems to step forth from the tree, a mythic figure in a starry sky representing Patience and Guidance. He waves a staff that, we assume, dispenses his power over two figures dubbed Ancestors–portrayed by Orlando Hunter and Ricarrdo Valentine, who as Brother(hood) Dance!, choreographed the production. As the Ancestors, Hunter and Valentine dance beautifully and sensuously, always near one another, a balletic pairing that expresses the love and unity between them. If the spirit has endowed the community with patience and guidance, and its ancestors have left a legacy of love and unity, Rondo would seem to be endowed with a wealth of treasures enabling it to thrive.
On the other side of the stage, Queen Drea, composer and sound designer, is seated behind an electronic console, sending forth the music and the sounds that form the community's aural environment. A set (designed by Sydney Latimer, mentored by Seitu Jones) emerges from behind a star-filled night. It is the humble front porch of a humble home, where Shoo Mama (Aimee K. Bryant) resides. Projections (excellent work by Mike Simmons) create the context for this house–the alleys with faltering garages running behind it. Mama sweeps the porch, hangs sheets to dry, and cares for the house, telling tales of her arrival some forty years before from Mississippi, making Rondo her home. From the porch, she observes everything in the neighborhood, good and bad, and has learned to interpret small clues to know what is going on across the street, next door, down the block. It is not snoopiness, but a form of intelligence that brings coherence to the community.
Other denizens filter in and out. Four young people (Tumelo Khupe, Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle, Michael Seye, and Talief Ticker), in different combinations, are children and teenagers at play, fighting grieving, dreaming, plotting, and giving solace to one another. A young mother pushing a baby carriage (Kyra Richardson) espouses the hopes and fears for her infant growing in this place, and Antonio Duke is at times a father, at times an adult son, exploring his role in the community. Hunter and Valentine saunter through as a queer couple, exuding their love with open confidence.
Song has a part in the expression of this community. As Shoo Mamma, Bryant sings, her voice as soulfully rich as ever, and James Craven, not a singer, offers a raspy rendition of "Blueberry Hill." Queen Drea, the Birth of Sound, emerges from behind her console to lay down a ferocious track with her rousing voice, addressed to scornful outsiders, with the refrain "Get your gaze off my face, get your feet off my neck, and get the fuck out of here."
There are moments of pure delight, such as the description of youth finding joy in summer jobs at Farm in the City. Other scenes have lovely beginnings that shift into something chilling, like the memory of cakewalks at school celebrations, a game of circling around the gym floor to win cakes baked by the hard-working mothers and grandmothers who sent their children to school full of hope–until the origins of the cakewalk, as part of minstrelsy, a demeaning entertainment that lampooned stereotyped images of African Americans people, chafe against the fond nostalgia.
In just over sixty minutes, we are honored with these and many more images, some couched in dream and aspiration, others bracingly real, and the work is beautifully, tenderly realized and finely composed by playwright Sharkey. Za'Nia Coleman's costume designs and Wu Chen Khoo's lighting add to the overall texture of the show. The down side is that these elements, adeptly "curated" by Rivers, are just that, separate bits. We do not come to know any characters, to attach a life story to these urgent images, so that it remains a vibrant collage without connecting tissue. It is a case of the whole being less than its indelible parts. While the work has the benefit of a curator on its creative team, the credits bear no mention of a director. Perhaps a skilled director's hand would lend the needed touch.
Nonetheless, each scene is well worth seeing on its own merits, and the entire enterprise conveys the sense of honesty, commitment and love its creators have invested in it. While one could conceive of further development that unifies these pieces making it an even more impactful work, it remains a worthy celebration of Rondo and a testament to the powerful and important work being done by Ashe Lab Fellowship.
Spittin' Seeds runs through June 26, 2022, a presentation at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $25.00; Seniors (65 and older) - $20.00; Students - $15.00 - College students must have a valid ID. For tickets and information, call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Erin Sharkey; Composer and Sound Design: Queen Drea; Choreography: Brother(hood) Dance!; Curator: Harrison David Rivers; Scenic and Property Design: Sydney Latimer; Scenic Design Mentor: Seitu Jones; Costume Design: Za'Nia Coleman; Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo; Projections Design: Mike Simmons; Stage Manager: May K. Winchell.
Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (Shoo Mama), James Craven (Guidance and Protection), Queen Drea (Birth of Sound), Antonio Duke (Jamaal), Orlando Hunter (Right, Ancestor), Tumelo Khupe (Adriana, Youth Ensemble), Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle (Veronica, Youth Ensemble), Kyra Richardson (Mother with Stroller), Michael Seye (Jordan, Youth Ensemble), Talief Ticker (Legend, Youth Ensemble), Ricarrdo Valentine (Left, Ancestor).