Shining Mirrors

When you walk into Intersection for the Arts to see Mirrors on Every Corner, the new play by 25-year-old playwright Oakland native Chinaka Hodge, it looks more like a gallery exhibit than a stage set. Evan Bissell’s art installation and set design run together, with a mural on the rear wall of one Mission family and a side wall of framed portraits and short ruminations on race and identity from other families around the neighborhood. The seats are obscured by two rolling dividers displaying large photos of the flattened Nimitz Freeway right after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and what looks like the shiny new Mandela Gateway apartment complex across the street from West Oakland BART. A card table with hands dealt sits in the middle of the room, and a baby bassinet hangs low from the ceiling in the corner.

Daveed Diggs and Margo Hall. Photo by Pak Han

People do play cards in the play—bid whist or “black folks’ bridge”—but it’s more a way to ease us into the story than anything else as the family checks in on itself. Hodge’s intense, funny and sobering play is the story of an African-American family in West Oakland whose youngest daughter is born white.

Hodge drives home that this is not simply a question of pigmentation, of being unusually light skinned or “passing.” Random (short for Miranda—all four kids go by nicknames) was born a white girl, “white as crack.” White enough to be chastised by her peers for “talking black,” white enough to cause identity crises in the family.  “I am less black for having white family,” her fiercely devoted eldest brother Watts complains.   “She will have no need for cast iron skillets—she will prefer nonstick,” her mother Willie says in a marvelous litany of the ways her daughter’s life will be different from her own. “She will bury fewer dead.”

A coproduction of Intersection resident company Campo Santo and Youth Speaks’s Living Word Project, the world premiere is a sleek 80 minutes without intermission, sharply directed by Mark Bamuthi Joseph. Campo Santo cofounder Margo Hall is superb as both stoic, tough-as-nails Willie and her blonde daughter Random, who describes herself as “the realest white girl you will ever know.” Everything about her face and body language seems to change for Random as a little girl as she barrages Watts with questions and waits for answers in rapt attention, and then as a defiant teenager with more attitude than she knows what to do with.

Daveed Diggs is terrific as the bookish, conscientious Watts, who feels he needs to stick around and watch over the family. “I’m Watts,” he says with an air of preemptive exasperation. “Yes, as in riots, but like light bulbs too.” As a child he grumbles priceless quickly, in a single breath, “Hate this house. Stupid. Hecka dumb.” But a little later, watching the Rodney King riots on TV, he resolves to stay there. “People acting like that—I’m never going outside again.”

Dwight Huntsman and Traci Tolmaire make good foils for each other as squabbling twins Row and Ninth, who don’t look at all alike. Row goes from dreaming of revenge for an abused classmate to selling drugs, barely breaking even after the commute from Vallejo to Oakland to do so. “I got to sell dime bags to see my mama,” he says. No-nonsense tomboy Ninth enlists in the reserves and is shipped off to Iraq.

Alejandro Acosta’s sound design deftly melds Ambrose Akinmusire’s jazzy score and DJ mixes by DJ Treat U Nice with bits of  Public Enemy, Queen Latifah and even Donald Rumsfeld’s “there are known knowns” speech.

Hodge’s language is poetic and down-to-earth at the same time, funny and eloquent with a lot to chew over. Diggs and Hall finish each other’s sentences in narration, as do the twins, and the story jumps from the present to the siblings’ childhood in the late ’80s and back again. “This room has such a long memory that everything that ever happened in it is happening right now,” Ninth says, explaining the play’s ground rules at the outset. As Watts says a little while before that, though, “Just watch—you’ll get it.”

Hodge, Joseph and the cast do a superb job of keeping the time and age shifts clear between past, present and timeless soliloquy without overusing lighting and sound effects—or using any tricks to make Hall look white as Random for that matter. It even works during the very tricky business of describing a fevered vision, an eloquent, quasi-mystical turning point for the girl. Hodge is primarily a poet, and this is her first full-length play. It’s a dynamic debut for an exciting and challenging theatrical voice from whom I hope we’ll be hearing more in the near future.

Mirrors in Every Corner
Through April 3
Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #28 of 2010, attended March 1.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment