Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

She Persists: The Great Divide III
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Sara Richardson, Audrey Park, Ashawnti Sakina Ford,
and Nora Montañez

Photo by George Byron Griffiths
In spring 2017, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Pillsbury House Theatre presented The Great Divide, a collection of five ten-minute plays. Each play took a different tack toward the intense feelings generated by the election outcome, particularly over the deep divisions which seemed to have drawn and quartered our nation into irreconcilable opposing forces. With the nation's tone fairly unchanged, a second edition of The Great Divide was staged in winter 2018. Here we are in 2019 and if anything, our divisions seem even more entrenched than ever. The Great Divide is back, but this time out Pillsbury House has narrowed its focus to the lives of women caught in the divide, compiling five works by women playwrights, with only women as characters. Behold, She Persists: The Great Divide III.

The focus on women is one of several that might have been taken. Income inequality, the assault on science and reason, the increasing segmentation between those who believe they are out to "make American great again" and those identified as "other," among other broad themes—all weigh heavily on our national spirit. In the case of women, though, there are perhaps reasons to garner hope as well as despair. Along with the weight of sexual abuse, unequal pay and opportunity, threats to choices around reproductive health, there are record numbers of women running for and being elected to office, with five women actively seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to run for president. That has to count for some progress.

As was the case in the first two Great Divides, the whole of this program is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the offerings are stronger than others, but collectively, the range of perspectives and concerns addressed, and the variety of tones from satirical comedy to dystopian nightmare create a strong image of where, from the point of view of women's lives, our nation sits at this point in history. The cast of four committed actors, who play vastly different characters in the course of the five plays, also gives She Persists: The Great Divide III a forceful sense of purpose.

The audience is greeted by the music, recorded and live, of Queen Drea, beginning with an incantation drawing from the lyrics of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," a blend of hip hop and ethereal sounds that meld the street with the cosmos. Queen Drea provides similar musical interludes in between the five plays. At the rear of the bare stage, bolts of white fabric hang from the ceiling, in front of Pillsbury's black backdrop, creating stark vertical stripes on which a faint image of a star with red and white horizontal stripes is projected, suggesting our flag, symbol of national unity, waning before a wall of stark, dichotomous choices.

First of the five pieces is I Voted by Aamera Siddiqui. It is election day 2022, and a white volunteer election judge (Sarah Richardson) is checking the roster to authenticate each voter's identification. A Hispanic woman (Nora Montañez) is divorced and reverted back to her maiden name, so her ID and the name on the voting roster do not match precisely. The volunteer seems to believe her, yet will not let her vote—there are laws and consequence for breaking them! A second election judge (Audrey Park), who is Asian-American, arrives, and an African-American voter on line (Ashawnti Sakina Ford) interjects herself as well into what becomes a riotous scold on the fears and tropes emanating from both sides of the divide. It is very funny, with terrific barbed writing—for instance, the white volunteer's desperate effort to assert her liberal bonafides by saying "I follow Ilhan Omar and Trevor Noah on Instagram!"—but these barbs scratch and leave a mark on the surface.

Next up is The Team, Casey Llewellyn's work set in the present moment. At Elizabeth Warren's campaign headquarters, a campaign leader (Park) and intern with social media savvy (Ford) are at work. Enter Senator Warren (Richardson, in a perfectly combed wig and tailored jacket), who latches on to her new intern with the idea of doing a video together: the Senator and her African-American buddy. This triggers a run-down of why communities of color do not see Warren as their champion, even though her policies would certainly benefit them. Whether or not one is a fan of Elizabeth Warren, Llewellyn has some powerful insights into the blindness of white privilege.

Wade in the Water is Oya Mae Duchess-Davis' dystopian view of society at war, following the re-election of Donald Trump, with men, woman and children of color rounded up and thrown in detention cells. Two such detainees (Montañez and Ford) plot to overcome the odds and break free from their captors (Park and Richardson) while another, unseen, captive wails the old spiritual "Wade in the Water." This world where extreme violence can only beget extreme violence, and society completely reverts to brutal tribalism, is frightening, tightly mounted, and the glummest of the evening's works.

After that, as a palate cleanser, the most lightweight of the five offerings, Cristina Florencia Castro's May Yamoe, an inept spelling of "Me llamo," Spanish for "My name is." A Latina instructor (Montañez) valiantly attempts to teach the language to three students in her "Spanish for Women" class. The three (Ford, Park and Richardson) are straight out of "Real Housewives of (fill in the locale)," each shallower than the one before, unwittingly disrespectful toward their teacher and the language they claim a wish to learn, and totally at peace with their own self-serving ends. May Yamoe is a laugh-out-loud funny glimpse into cultural incompetency that fuels the great divide.

The last of the works is the most abstract, Ascension by Philana Imade Omorotionmwan. Park is dressed in board room power attire, the heels high, the lipstick red, exercising self-discipline and gathering strength. Determined to ascend, she declaims "We have to create our own value; the universe sees us and has called us worthless." Ford is on her haunches on a meditation pillow, alternately sleeping and besieged by all-consuming feelings. Montañez vacillates between the two, understanding Park's cry for ascension and Ford's need to experience feelings. The play is no more than an attempt to put these disparate, and authentic, urges together.

The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, remarkably so given that the short-play structure does not allow for anything approaching character development. Noël Raymond directs She Persists: The Great Divide III with a crispness that sets the tone for each piece quickly, allowing each to get to right work delivering the playwright's concept in their chosen manner.

However, the link between these works and the theme "She Persists", focusing on women, feels just partially served. Of the five plays, only Ascension deals head-on with women's struggles, and in that case, it ties back to struggles that have existed among the ranks of feminists not only for the past two years, but for decades. Wade in the Water, is firmly in the grip of a woman's attempt to fight back when men have failed to do so, though the bleak scenario it depicts clamps down on male and female alike. The episodes in the other three plays, while presented through women's voices, could as likely have been peopled by men or by mixed gender groups. This does not diminish their quality, but does prompt the question as to what else might have been offered that more directly tied this edition of The Great Divide with its stated theme, "She Persists."

That aside, if we have to live with a great divide wreaking havoc on our nation, we can at least find comfort in Pillsbury House Theatre's capturing some of the irony, the misguided efforts and the pain for audiences to reflect on how we might act to put an end to the need for this series.

She Persists: The Great Divide III, through March 24, 2019, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. For information and tickets, call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Playwrights: Cristina Florencia Castro ("May Yamoe"), Oya Mae Duchess-Davis ("Wade in the Water"), Casey Llewellyn ("The Team"), Philana Imade Omorotionmwan ("Ascension"), Aamera Siddiqui ("I Voted"); Director: Noël Raymond; Music and Sound Design: Queen Drea; Environmental Design: Kellie Larson Costume Design: Amber Brown; Light Design: Katie Deutsch; Fight Choreography: Heidi Hunter Batz; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond

Cast: Sara Richardson, Audrey Park, Ashawnti Sakina Ford, Nora Montañez


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