Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Ways of White Folks
Also see Rebecca's recent review of Charlotte's Web
The performance begins with the audience greeted as guests at a New Age retreat. At the welcome lecture, New Leader Eugene Lesch (Taylor Harlow) explains that the retreat is designed to help people find joy though African rhythm and dance. Lesch's Black employees cannot hide their skepticism and disdain, but the white clients attending the retreat are clearly smitten with Lesch and his method. After the opening lecture, the audience is divided into small groups. Each group moves from one room to the next, experiencing several characters' most private moments and secret thoughts along the way.
Paul McElwee and Annette Kaplafka are fantastically creepy as the well-meaning white Carraways in Slave on the Block. Cianna Castro provides Mattie's casual contempt for the Carraways, and Ethan Hammett presents Luther's detached bemusement at their behavior in spot-on performances.
Seated on a couch next to the actors for Mother and Child feels like being invited to a small neighborhood gossip session. Woman 1, Woman 2, and Woman 3 (Faye O. Wooten, Christina Foye, Ayo Moore, respectively) share an authentic, though not always entirely friendly, connection. The casual nature of their conversation is uncanny because it masks the dire implications of what they are actually discussing. Despite its friendly tones and gestures, or perhaps because of them, I found this piece to be the most chilling.
As Jack, Dawn McCall walks the line between villain and victim in the impossibly emotional monologue Passing. Reading a letter to his mother, Jack reveals what it is like to abandon his dark skinned family in order to live as a white person. McCall allows the audience to feel Jack's frustration, triumph and despair. Cora Unashamed is another monologue with an intense emotional impact. Worn and weary, but never broken, Ontaria Kim Wilson's performance as Cora is absolutely gut wrenching. Her story reveals how deep-seated racism destroys the lives of Black people who suffer it and the white people who practice it.
Each of the vignettes staged around the mansion is potent and captivating in its own way. Directing team Ontaria Kim Wilson and EgoPo Artistic Producer Dane Eissler create a sense of intimacy so intense that watching the scenes play out can feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. But listening to stories that make us uncomfortable is exactly the point here. Wilson and Eissler want us to reckon with the realities we would rather ignore, to sit with our discomfort and consider the state of race relations in the United States in the 1930s and today. Not just in a theoretical way, but through deeply personal and authentically individual stories. It is powerful medicine and phenomenal theater.
EgoPo Classic Theater's The Ways of White Folks runs through Sunday, January 22, 2023, at Glen Foerd, public park and museum, 5001 Grant Avenue, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit www.egopo.org or call 267-273-1414.