Antaeus Theatre Company has opened their new season with the powerfully evocative and beautifully executed coming-of-age story, world premiere of Marlow Wyatt’s “SHE”. It’s a thoughtful slice of American pie we don’t often see represented on stage, and one that is both delicious, bitter, and ultimately full of hope.
SHE is She Sojourner Freeman, a 13, “almost 14”, African-American girl growing up in a bucolic factory town in the early 70’s. Her single mother works at the local factory and is currently involved with a mysterious and charming alcoholic boyfriend. She and her best friend, Davie Mansaw, sit on the stoop dreaming of where life will take them as they navigate adolescence and the nosiest of finger-wagging neighbors, Miss Jane. The action takes place over the course of a long summer as She tries to figure out how to get her mother on board if and when she is accepted to a prestigious boarding school, Vanguard Academy.
Wyatt’s play is a lyrical and beautiful mediation on growing up black and female in a small town in the 70’s – not only in a situation full of obstacles but in a world where so much is stacked against you. She faces seemingly insurmountable harsh realities from the consequences of her mother’s choices and their lack of stability to the limited opportunities for her to find work – all while figuring out her place in the world where not everyone has your best interests at heart. All of this threatens to diminish her spirit but She is a dreamer and a writer who is determined to write her way up and out of the box she finds herself in. It takes her own determination along with those around her reminding her of her own words; that “dreams take you places even when you’re standing still” – to free her from her circumstances.
The performances are beautiful, led with a graceful and precise hand by Andi Chapman. The design team has created an innovative set with plain, seemingly drab apartment walls that are illuminated by Nicholas Santiago projections that transform them into an amusement park, a red-light district, and various outdoor settings that resonate effectively both time, place and emotion. The cast is led by a revelatory performance by Camille Ariana Spirlin as She. Spirlin embues She with wide-eyed ebullience and hope along with a piercing vulnerability that lets the audience into her world and root for her at every moment. It’s as if we’re all just riding on her shoulder through this life-changing summer. So authentic is Spirlin in the role, one would-be protective gramma in the audience couldn’t help herself and yelled “Oh NO!” when She took out a cigarette! It is a joyful, heartbreaking, must-see performance.
As She’s best friend and first boyfriend, Davie, Lorenz Arnell is absolutely charming in every way. He’s funny, has a playful chemistry with Spirlin, and lights up every scene he’s in. When he realizes She is ready to fly, the open-hearted, bittersweet joy on his face is breathtaking. Arnell is an actor to watch.
Karen Malina White is tough and tender-hearted as She’s down on her luck single mom, Bernice. White brings a raw, multi-layered realness to Bernice that allows us to care about her even when she’s sabotaging herself and her daughter. Jon Chaffin is superb as Bernice’s slick and charismatic boyfriend, Mr. Lonnie. Chaffin beautifully combines Lonnie’s allure and danger in a captivating performance. Veronica Thompson is pitch perfect as the older neighbor, Miss Jane, who sees all and professes to know all. It’s a role that could come off as simply old school authoritarian but in Thompson’s hands we see the older generation who wants to see the younger ones succeed and represent their people well. Gerard Joseph makes the absolute most of the role of Othalee, another charmer that crosses She’s path. Joseph is masterful in a pivotal scene.
SHE takes us on a summer adventure of one girl’s journey to herself and the village of people who help take her to the world.
SHE runs through November 20 at The Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center located at 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205 (between N. Brand Blvd. and Artsakh Ave.). The first 90 minutes of parking is free, then $2 per hour, in Glendale Marketplace garage located at 120 Artsakh Ave. (between Broadway and Harvard). The theater is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible.
For reservations and information, call 818-506-1983 or go to antaeus.org.