We live in an enlightened society, right? When we watch a classic film, let’s say Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? from 1967, we might think we’ve come a long way in race relations. In that film, a white family is discomfited when their daughter brings home her fiancé, an accomplished young man who happens to be Black, and his parents. After some extremely awkward ups and downs, the film seems to indicate that love will help them overcome challenges and discrimination.
Local actor and director Torie Wiggins has taken a different tack on that story with her play, Who All Over There?, getting its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC). Recalling the 1967 film, Wiggins has flipped the script.
In a recent YouTube video about the production for ETC, she said, “In our current climate, a white man walking into a Black family’s house, I often wondered what that must’ve felt like for him. When I was thinking about the tone of this play, that’s what came to mind: being in the space of each other’s culture.”
Wiggins’ recently commissioned play is about Danya Martin (Maliyah Gramata-Jones), an aspiring Black singer, and Dean Willis (Spencer Lackey), a white young financial professional. He initiates an awkward conversation with her at an art gallery, gets quickly turned down but persists, resulting in a candid get-acquainted date. They keep it real, having a refreshing contemporary conversation about the challenges faced by people who decide to step into interracial relationships. Wiggins’ script literally fast-forwards (with amusing projected comments) through a month leading up to Dean’s invitation to Sunday dinner with the whole Martin family.
Wiggins applied the Black vernacular phrase she’s used as her title to shorthand how this unfolds: “It really means,” she explained via YouTube, “‘What am I about to walk into? Am I prepared?’ Like, if I’m invited to a party, but I don’t feel like being all levels of social, I might just ask, ‘Who all over there?’”
The “who all” in Wiggins’ play are the Martins, a lovingly outspoken middle-class Black family, living in Cincinnati in 2019. Danya’s parents Deirdre (Keisha L. Kemper) and John (Kenneth Early) have tried hard to raise their children to be open-minded and progressive about race, but the reality of Danya’s new boyfriend, even before they meet him, sets them back on their heels. Danya’s brother “Truck” (Jay Wade) loves his sister, but he too is skeptical. And Petunia, “Aunt Toonie,” Deirdre’s sister (Kyndra Dyanne Jefferies), is especially and comically vocal about the troubles Danya is likely to face.
The first round of how things might unfold is a hilarious nightmare sequence in which Danya, sleeping on the living room couch, is horrified by a vision of her family in the trappings of a handful of 20th-century Black family TV sitcoms — Good Times, The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and more. Dean shows up for dinner with a comically forced smile and a bottle of Crown Royal for Danya’s dad, wearing a Pan-African red, black and green cap and vest and announcing that his parents are Democrats who voted for Obama — twice. Danya squirms in discomfort witnessing the rapid downhill slide by her dream family members in silly, stereotyped, one-dimensional roles subtly foreshadowed by pre-show TV theme songs from the '80s and '90s.
That horror show dissipates quickly and amusingly, leading Dean and Danya to reinforce their belief that love will be enough to make things work. But his actual first meeting with the Martin family quickly and sadly goes off the tracks in a much more contemporary and painful way, laced with very real concerns about race relations in the 21st Century, still fraught with rough edges. Then, a revelation about Dean’s past leads Danya to question if she has really gotten to know him. A rapid rewind leaves it to the audience to imagine how this relationship might have resolved.
Swiftly staged (1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission) by New York director Stori Ayers, Who All Over There? has a fine cast. Gramata-Jones as Danya convincingly plays a smart, sensitive young woman, guarded and realistic but willing to explore a relationship that will have its complications. Lackey has the right presence for the awkward but earnest Dean, with genuine motives that he’s not quite able to voice. Kemper and Early handle with finesse the roles of loving, if conservative, parents. Jefferies provides a lot of high-pitched humor as Danya’s frank Aunt Toonie. Wade’s smart-aleck, sports-obsessed kid brother Truck, who is genuinely concerned for his sister, is just right for his part.
Ensemble Theatre’s mission is to produce premieres of “works that often explore compelling social issues,” according to a mission statement included on the theater’s website. That’s precisely what this clever and provocative script and production accomplish, without offering easy answers. Wiggins, a graduate of UC’s College-Conservatory of Music’s drama program, has frequently displayed her acting talent in numerous ETC productions (and with many other local theater companies). She has also directed with considerable success. Her writing of this script, full of humor and thoughtful interactions, demonstrates a new level of accomplishment. Three cheers for ETC in making it possible for audiences to see the greater breadth of her talent.
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati will present Who All Over There? through April 30 at 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. Info: ensemblecincinnati.org.
Coming soon: CityBeat Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Cincinnati stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter