Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues
Full Circle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Dana Lee Thompson and Jasmine Porter
Photo by L.K. Bachman
They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues, a play by Siddeeqah Shabazz being given its world premiere production by Full Circle Theater, is challenging, absorbing and winning. Enacted by a uniformly talented cast of eight actors, Shabazz manages to make shrewd sense of combining a fraught family therapy session with a situation comedy akin to those depicting perfect African American nuclear families where a last-minute science project is a typical crisis–"The Cosby Show" being the prototype of the genre. The merger of sitcom superficiality and therapeutic probing results in a depiction of family dysfunction at its darkest. Each motif makes the other more potent and yields a whole unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts. Director Lester Mayers adroitly integrates these motifs. Each actor's performance modulates to seem authentic in both of the desperate circumstances, while maintaining a consistency of character between the two.

We discover that we are the "live studio audience" for the sitcom, which is called "The Douglasses." It serves up the foibles of its five upper middle-class family members: father Charles, mother Lena, first-born son Evan, middle child Sharice, and youngest child Brian. Charles is a physician who lays down the law with a firm hand and a dose of paternal wisdom when the need arises. Lena, an aspiring artist who gave up her ambitions to be a wife to Charles and mother to his children, brooks no nonsense from the kids, but is a patsy for Charles' lavish gifts. Sharice and Brian taunt Evan as a "golden child," the obedient and high-achieving apple of their father's eye. Sharice is often overlooked in ways common to a middle child and compensates by being bossy, though as the only girl, she sometimes takes on the persona of family "princess." Brian has a quick wit and a recurring catchphrase–"ooh, tough crowd"–when his quips don't land, and is characterized by his father as "sensitive," which is not meant as a compliment. Their antics play out in a comfortable but mundane living room, well-conceived by set set-designer Rick Polenek.

The same set serves equally well in the alternating scenes, where four of the Douglasses gather for a family session with Dr. Dana Marchbanks, who is also Black. The missing Douglass is Charles, as the other four are there to work through their grief following Charles' untimely death in a car accident. Brian requested the therapy and it is clear that the others don't really want to be there, least of all Lena. She starts off grilling Dr. Marchbanks about his credentials, and when he starts of by saying that his undergrad degree is from Howard University, Lena's response is an icy "Cute."

The sitcom episodes provide flashbacks that inform the therapy sessions by covering the five-year duration of the series. Memories from the series' early years are rosy and cute, remembering adorable antics that accommodate laugh-lines, their problems solved by the wise counsel of the Douglass parents by each episode's end. As the episodes inch closer to the present, things become less comfortable and behaviors less defensible, until the series finale arrives, upending any sense of family equanimity.

Shabazz offers us two other characters for They Wear Teal Ribbons on Their Tongues, Alex and Jaxon. They are the studio hosts who welcome us, the would-be studio audience, to the live taping of The Douglasses. With hyper-active verve, they coach our response to the "applause" sign positioned above the set and cajole us with banter and jokes meant to put us in good humor before the show begins. They return between scenes (the time allotted for commercial breaks, for the sitcom cast to change costumes, and props to be rearranged) to fill the gap with more high spirits.

If you've never been a member of a live studio audience, I can report to you that there really are people assigned to do what Alex and Jaxon are doing. Unfortunately, Alex and Jaxon's jokes are not really funny or original enough, and their observations are not incisive enough to win our favor, so these segments have the feel of putting the play on "pause," rather than contributing to its flow.

Taken as a whole, however, They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues makes a strong impact, with the juxtaposition between what really goes on in this family, which (spoiler alert) includes misogyny, substance abuse, and child predation (after first showing my confusion on the show's title, I've been informed that teal ribbons are often associated with sexual assault), with the lightweight veneer of a perfect-for-prime-time model family, is deeply effective.

The actors score points on both sides of the television screen as the intentionally insipid characters of the television series and the wounded family members trying to avoid facing harsh realities in therapy. The two female family members, mother Lena (Jasmine Porter) and daughter Sharice (Dana Lee Thompson), have the most contentious relationship. Porter and Thompson add layers upon their initial appearance, as the complexity of damage done to both of them builds, at first quietly and then with the force of a tornado. Both are terrific. Michael Terrell Brown captures Brian's inner survival mechanism that relies on playing the clown, while also conveying a tender-hearted nature. Darick Mosely is spot on as the oldest child who has no idea how privileged his birth order and gender have made him.

As Charles, Peyton Dixon is terrific at illustrating a model, even-tempered father and then stripping away the deceptions to reveal a quite different and unsavory reality. As the therapist, Dominique Jones exhibits excellent skills at creating a safe space and drawing clients from their reticence to confront their real issues, which–we are not surprised to learn–are not their shared grief in the wake of Charles' death. Kashif as Jaxon and Ninchai Nok-Chiclana as Alex, the two studio hosts, make for good company to fill the gaps between scenes, but that facet of the play doesn't give them much with which to make an impression. Both actors ably take on small roles in the TV episodes–a first date for Sharice, a patient of Dr. Douglass, and a potential donor to "golden child" Evan's start-up non-profit.

In addition to Polenek's fine set design, the play is enhanced by Lester Mayers and Mimi Nguyen's apt costume designs, Alice Endo's lighting, which subtly shades the drama of each scene, and Quinci Bachman's sound design. The "television series" comes with the customarily insipid earworm of a theme song, composed by Dan Dukich, while videographer Mike Hanisch gives us the opening credits sequence, where–week after week–the audience meet the characters and the actors who play them.

To playwright Shabazz's credit, the ending of They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues allows for hope of reconciliation and healing without stretching credibility. The persuasiveness of the therapist and their process allows us to believe that good can come out of the baring of scorched souls, for those with the strength to see the process through. The play pushes us to recognize the fault lines beneath facile images of the American dream. In this case, the "dream" is realized by a Black family who perhaps cling to it all the more dearly for how hard-won it has been, yet fault lines lie beneath the ground just the same.

They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues is very much worth seeing, for its depiction of pain masquerading as slick humor, for its witty dramatic structure, and its strong performances and production values.

They Wear Teal Ribbons Around Their Tongues, a Full Circle Theater production, runs through April 28, 2024, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please visit or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.

Playwright: Siddeeqah Shabazz; Director: Lester Mayers; Scenic Designer: Rick Polenek; Costume Co-Designers: Lester Mayers & Mimi Nguyen; Lighting Designer: Alice Endo; Sound Designer: Quinci Bachman; Properties Designer: Andre Johnson Jr.; Composer: Dan Dukich; Projections Coordinator: Peter Morrow; Videographer: Mike Hanisch; Intimacy Director: Mason Tyer; Technical Director: Erin Gustafson; Stage Manager: Amanda Oporto; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie (KJ) Johns; Producer: Rick Shiomi.

Cast: Michael Terrell Brown (Brian Douglass), Peyton Dixon (Charles Douglass), Dominique Jones (Dr. Dana Marchbanks), Kashif (Jaxon/Darius/James Mosley), Darrick Mosley (Evan Douglass), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Alex/Lester), Jasmine Porter (Lena Douglass), Dana Lee Thompson (Sharice Douglass).