“NINA! …NINA! … NINA! … NINA!” Retha from “sweet” by Harrison David Rivers
by Robin Byrd
The Playwright. How do you repeat the same line four times in a row and make the room move? First you have to have a character that can say it in context without losing authenticity and second, this character has to be written by a playwright who knows how to evoke earthquakes/eyes in a storm/imagery that speaks volumes/…into a still room… with nothing save words and the voices that speak them; Harrison David Rivers is such a playwright.
Harrison started his week explaining to the actors that the women don’t use “periods” and that the actors are to step over “dashes.” Mild mannered but firm, he came to work…
The Play. “sweet” by Harrison David Rivers was read at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference. Harrison brought his director, David Mendizábal, with him and it was very clear that the process of working on the play was greatly enhanced by the way the playwright and director flowed together. Ana Uzule as Retha (pronounced “REE tha”) and Dionna Jenkins as Nina (pronounced “NEE Na”) found the voices and rhythm of their characters from the moment they opened their mouths. Playing off the strong characters of Retha and Nina, George played by Johnny Brantley III also gave a good first read – his first words made you see George right away. I was very moved by the female -centered story. “sweet” is full of emotion, forbidden fruit, and brokenness yet hope and belief that the spirit can and will prevail in the face of any obstacle. Harrison and Mendizábal both described the play as being about longing, desire and restraint. The play was described in ethereal terms; I found that interesting and different. As the week went on, I could see exactly what this meant. Making the intangible tangible is as much a part of the story of “sweet” as it is the way the play is written.
The imagery of “sweet” is like incense floating heaven-ward with each word. Retha’s handling of laundry creates a visual so strong; the mere mention of laundry conjures up Retha. I wondered what the title meant up until the performance, I had tried unsuccessfully to figure it out then “end of play” was read and I felt that I had just had the sweetest experience of any play I have ever seen. Sweet is the essence that lingers in the room as the characters exist; sweet is the experience that stays with you once the story has been told.
Being around the table. There was an extra actress in the room from day one, Tiffany, she participated in discussing what the script meant and how the characters appeared to be and she seemed to love just being around the table with the others sharing the moments. On the third day of rehearsals, Harrison stated that he had been contemplating another facet to the play which would add another character or two. So, now, Tiffany was added to the lineup to read. Dramaturg Jeremy White had pulled information for the playwright off the internet including some sound bites/footage about outer space travel. I am not sure if Jeremy was asked to do it or just saw the need to get some data for the playwright to look over; Harrison seemed really pleased and humbled by it. The group did a roundtable read of the extra pages and Harrison said something to the affect of “I’ll decide what I am going to use but it will be somewhere along these lines.” I thought it was risky but it was his play to do with as he chose – it was either going to work or turn his lovely play into a hot mess. Just my thought. Said a little prayer for him and left for the night.
The Actors. On the third day of rehearsals, I witnessed actress Dionna Jenkins settled completely into her Nina-ness. It was subtle and it was awe-inspiring to see and hear the extra layers of her character come through the lines. She no longer looked like Dionna reading the lines; she looked like Nina sitting at the table having conversations with Retha and George. I could feel the pull – the more Nina, the more new places the other characters were pushed to explore… It started a domino effect. I wanted to ask Dionna what she felt as she was letting go, how she got from one dimension to the next to the next to multidimensional and what the moment felt like to her when she became Nina. You see Nina had a big part to play in the success of the four consecutive, “Nina’s” too. If Dionna doesn’t bring Nina to the stage in a strong enough force, the meaning behind the words would be lost. Like Retha’s laundry, it is Nina’s name that conjures her up.
The mispronunciation of Nina: Johnny seemed to be searching up till the end for a way to not mispronounce “Nina” pronounced “Nee-na”. It was only in one place where this occurred. He was thoroughly frustrated about it but he continued to work on it and around it; it seemed every time he got there “Nye-na” would come out. The day of the reading, the way Johnny Brantley III reconciled the pronunciation of her name was as full of all the frustration and ambiguity the spelling of the name brings with it, what he went through to figure out why at that spot he could not seem to get the right pronunciation to come out, what “George” his character was feeling at the moment and what Nina, the character was evoking out of George at that point in the story. I will say the end result was nothing short of brilliant! He twisted that name the same why Nina was twisting George and the audience felt it and knew they felt it. Bravo, Johnny! This is not to say the rest of his performance was not stellar but to say that as I watched all the actors go from a magnificent cold read of the script to dissecting the nuances, what separates out the actors with potential and fire to be great is how they listen to their characters, the words, the moments coupled with the director’s vision for the piece and how they use their craft to make it work. Sometimes, making it work involves some painful stretching…
Homework for Ana Uzule on Thursday night was to find ways to say Nina up to four times with meaning behind it (my interpretation of the assignment). The actress admitted to not having a reference point. Harrison told her to play around with it but not to say more than four as there were only two on the page. She looked bewildered; Harrison and David gave her input on what to pull from, a few others in the room shared but ultimately, Harrison required the actress to rise to the occasion. Was she up to it? I believed she was but it would require some stretching. Harrison believed she was capable, otherwise, he would not have matter-of-factly told her to do it. Night of the reading, she brought the house down; I had chills, pushed back tears and when I looked over at Ted Shine who was sitting next to me. We were both overcome in awe of these young actors who made “sweet” so sweet (pun intended).
Not to leave out Tiffany who sat in character the entire play, only animating to do her radio spots about the moon landing in 1969. Yes, Harrison’s interjection worked! Tiffany was so focused that even the way she sat – motionless – brought a certain fortitude to the play. Her portrayal of the journalist was era specific and profound. I remember those days and she took me back.
Even the stage directions were read well and kept the feel of the play active. Wesley Johnson and Tia Watson did a very good job in that area.
The Director. David Mendizábal was as enthusiastic about “sweet” as the playwright. His excellent direction brought things out of the young actors that I am sure they will use for the rest of their live. “sweet” took wings and soared. The thing about really good direction is that it does not take away from the piece but brings more out of it – the essence – of the piece… It was so smooth, I had that sit back moment – you know, the moment where you don’t want to leave because you need to savor something? In this case, it was the sweet, oh, so sweet aroma of Harrison David Rivers play “sweet”.
This play is a must see. Audiences will enjoy it!
The Honored Guest. I was sitting next to playwright Ted Shine during the performance of the reading and we both agreed that the actors and the play were excellent. Ted Shine, is the Texas playwright honored at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference 2014; he has been writing plays since the 1950s and after the reading, he wanted to speak to each of the actors about their performance. He was really blown away at theire talent. What a treat – another moment that lasts a lifetime. So, one by one, they came to speak to him…