Magnolia Ballet mixes many genres to tell its story of inescapable family legacies

Photo by Eric Watkins

Entering the Bookspan Theatre space at Den Theatre to see the world premiere of Magnolia Ballet, you are thrust into another world. (If you’re lucky enough, you can practically enter that world by choosing a seat right onstage.) The play is set in present-day Georgia, but Steven Abbott’s scenic design makes it seem alien and timeless. When “Z,” played by Terry Guest (who is also the playwright), tells you that there are ghosts about, you don’t doubt it for a second: this is the kind of place where you’d find them. Abbott’s set, accented by Eric Watkins’ eerie lighting and Brian Grimm’s ambient swamp sounds, invites them.

Guest’s play has its literal ghosts, all right, embodied by the intimidating and haunting Sheldon D. Brown as an otherworldly character called simply “Apparition.” But these spirits of the past, including Z’s late mother and grandfather, are not the only phantoms present here. Along with the decaying home that seems to be surrendering itself to the swamps lie the physical remnants of a past that Z knows nothing about, things that point to a hidden history connecting his family and the White family down the road.

Both families share the surname Mitchell and fathers who rule by domineering. These men, both played by Wardell Julius Clark, have only a single child each, a son, who is hiding from his father the fact that he is gay…and the fact that the two teens are in a relationship. Complicating matters, there is the fact that the two Mr. Mitchells strongly dislike each other. There is cause for that, too: for generations, the White Mitchell family has been very active in the Klan and other organized efforts to hold Black people down. Their current patriarch (whom Clark also plays, mostly for comic effect) was responsible for the burning of a Black church with many people inside. The fact that he now claims to regret that past and has dedicated himself to paying penance by becoming a cop—in rural Georgia: hold your cynical laughter, folks—does nothing to make his son Danny (Ben Sulzberger, who gives a raw performance full of his character’s inner conflicts) feel better about his heritage.

Director Mikael Burke keeps everything tight here despite the play’s blend of racism, homophobia, family memories, romance, ghost story, ballet (yes, some of this is told through dance and movement), and comedy. Occasionally it doesn’t mesh perfectly, but even then writer Guest is making a point: in one scene, he has Brown go through a whirlwind history of slavery from the point of view of the White slavers. The actor plays these roles with full and overt awareness that he is Black, which leads to moments of smirking comedy within a horrific discussion. Similar juxtapositions challenge Clark: he is a father whose own father’s toxic actions and emotional distance taught him how to behave toward his son; he really loves his son; he distrusts White people and especially Mitchell next door; he has a sharp, visceral dislike of gays; his own son is gay and seeing the son of his enemy. Clark’s complex portrayal is more than up to these challenges.

Choreographer Jenn Freeman (also known as Po’Chop), making use of Grimm’s multilayered original music, makes every aspect of the play’s movement mean something, from the furious dancing that all of the Black actors, playing slaves, use to frustrate their captor, to the slow, sensual movements of the Apparition. (Brown makes these sinewy movements tell whole stories.) Balancing all of this is Burke, who also takes advantage of wonderfully realistic intimacy and fight choreography by Jyreika Guest and Kirsten Baity.

This play has a strong sense of deja vu: these families play out the same scenes again and again over generations, and ultimately only pain and loss remain. There is an inevitability to all of it that comes out in Terry Guest’s writing and anguished performance, both of which (whether in comic or serious mode) highlight opportunities missed or lost. That Guest sets his play in the present forces the audience to see the revolving patterns, even as we wonder if things in our own world will ever change.

Magnolia Ballet, presented by About Face Theatre, will play until June 11. Tickets are pay-what-you-can.

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