Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
How to Use a Knife had four full productions in 2016 and 2017 in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere series. Mixed Blood is among the first regional theaters to follow with its own production, a worthy season opener for this bold company which had two of its productions from last season (Safe at Home and Vietgone) honored with Ivey Awards just last week. Directed by Jesca Prudencio, who worked with playwright Will Snider on the early workshops of the play, it surges with non-stop energy, emulating the work rhythms of its setting, where hurried orders to serve the lunch and dinner rush crowds keep everyone in constant motion.
Mixed Blood's performance space is arranged proscenium style, the audience facing a restaurant kitchen, all stainless steel, wire shelves, grills and deep sinks, that looks so authentic one would think Mixed Blood is running a catering business on the side. The play jumps to a start with brisk percussion and dimmed lights, as cast members prepare the set of the first scene, and this pattern is used for all scene changes, so that, though there is a pause in the play as props are rearranged and actors exit or enter, the pulsating life force of this kitchen never ebbs.
We meet the two line cooks, Carlos and Miguel, who are Guatemalan. Miguel does not speak in English, so Carlos communicates on his behalf to the other kitchen staff. One of those is an order runner, Jack, a white kid fresh out of college. Jack assumes that his current job is just to tide him over till his true calling takes shape. His ambition (though there is little actual evidence of him having any) is to be a writer, even as he admits he has nothing to write about. Also in the kitchen is a silent black man industriously washing dishes.
In bursts Michael, the restaurant's owner. He is a self-satisfied white man, one for whom the term "slime ball" was coined, more interested in making time with the women at the bar than with the kitchen. In tow is his new chef, George. To Chef George, Michael introduces Carlos and Miguel as Mexicans (they know better than to correct him) and the dishwasher, whose name Michael never bothered to learn, simply as African. George asks what part of Africa the dishwasher is from, to which Michael doltishly answers "the black part." Michael likes this dishwasher because he is Muslim, so he never drinkshe only works! We soon gather that Michael and Chef George have a history together, and we get a distinct impression that Michael is doing George a tremendous favor by giving him this job.
Not until the third scene does the dishwasher speak. He reveals just enough else to maintain self-respect. But Chef George senses a commonality with this mysterious man. An unlikely friendship develops between them as bit by bit they reveal painful secrets that brought them each to their present stations in life. When Steve reveals a desire to be a chef, George agrees to teach him, including the titular lesson on using a knife. In exchange, Steve will help George learn to control his oft-raging anger. Carlos, Miguel and John take note of the friendship between their boss and the lowest person on the kitchen's food-chain, the dishwasher. When an immigration officer arrives, searching for someone with a sordid past, everything becomes much more complicated and Chef George is faced with an agonizing choice that costs him dearly.
While How to Use a Knife covers a lot of ground, the core lies in the relationship between George and Steve. Each has had to face things in their past that would torment the best of us, and each has done that in different ways. Steve confides to George that he is the first real friend he has had for a very long time, and we sense that is true for George as well. There is an understanding between them, yet each hold back some of their most torturous secrets, as much to protect their friends as themselves, until circumstances force them out. While this friendship is the center of the play, the hierarchy of ethnicities and of work-roles among the kitchen team is always a presence. For the low-ranked order-runner knows, without admitting to it, that being white trumps the others, revealed when he feels he has the right to bark orders at Steve, even after Chef George rebuffs him for doing so. And at the end, it is not the owner or the top man in the kitchen, but those who depend on their jobs to get from one day to the next, who see to it that the work of grilling steaks and burgers goes on.
The play is a gemstone surrounded by performances that dazzle. Zack Meyers, a Miami-based actor debuting in the Twin Cities, is fantastic as Chef George: disagreeable, pitiful, with both a tender heart and a ticking bomb lodged within him. Twin Cities veteran actor Ansa Akyea is equally excellent as Steve, maintaining dignity and calm through the most harrowing circumstances, and making it difficult to leap to judgments of his character. Raúl Ramos is striking as Carlos, using humor to take the edge off his sharply noted observations, while Jake Caceres as the clownish Miguel adds quite a few laughs to the evening. Michael Booth captures precisely the lounge-lizard quality of Michael, who doesn't knowor, more likely, doesn't carehow obnoxious he is to everyone. Maxwell Collyard balances John's slacker naiveté and unconscious white privilege, making him an aptly grating character. As the immigration officer, Taus Khazem projects the right degree of steady, dispassionate tenacity.
Joseph Stanley's kitchen set, described above, is perfect, and props artisans Lois Rhomberg and Tara Trnka earn kudos for filling the kitchen's shelves and counters with the requisite goods. Karin Olson's lighting design is a constant presence: bright white light when the kitchen is going full bore, reduced to a dimly focused cone after hours, and a haze during scene changes. Janet O'Neill has designed just right costumes, and Phillip O'Toole's percussive sound design is essential to the production.
Leaving the theater after seeing How to Use a Knife, two different couples with whom I am acquainted each told me that it was one of the best plays they had seen in years. I agree. The writing rings true, the plot points are of real consequence, and it bears witness on many of the issues that plague our society. It raises sharp questions, with no easy answers. Still early in the 2017-2018 theater season, it sets a high bar for plays and productions to follow.
How to Use a Knife continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through October 15, 2017. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door two hours prior to performances. Tickets purchased in advance are $25. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities and their companions. For advance tickets and Access Pass information call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Playwright: Will Snider; Directed by: Jesca Prudencio; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Janet O'Neill; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Phillip O'Toole; Props Artisan: Lois Rhomberg and Tara Trnka; Technical Director: Carl Schoenborn; Production Manager: Catherine Campbell; Stage Manager: Chris Code; Assistant Stage Manager: Madilynn Garcia.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Steve), Michael Booth (Michael), Jake Caceres (Miguel), Maxwell Collyard (Jack), Taus Khazem (Kim), Zack Myers (George), Raúl Ramos (Carlos).