Review: "#Charlottesville" and "Black Women Dating White Men" at East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual Festival

East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual

Presented by 59E59 Theaters via https://59e59.org/

July 15-25, 2021

(top, l-r) Christelle Belinga, Clara Emanuel, Risha Silvera, (bottom, l-r) Arianne Carless, and Merryl Ansah in BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN
The East to Edinburgh festival comes to 59E59 Theaters this summer in virtual form, as East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual. The lineup of nine shows has been curated by 59E59 Associate Curator Jessica Hart to celebrate the diversity of the Edinburgh Fringe, even if this year's productions won't be physically performed there. The festival's limited run extends from July 15 through July 25, with one $20 festival pass ($18 for 59E59 Members) giving access to all nine shows for on-demand streaming through the 59E59 website.

In the first of two pieces on the festival, we look at #Charlottesville and Black Women Dating White Men, a pair of plays constructed verbatim from interviews. While the focus of the latter might seem in some ways much broader than that of the former, in both works, individual experiences open up onto and illuminate larger social issues.

Visit us tomorrow for more from East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual 2021!

#Charlottesville

Written and performed by Priyanka Shetty

Directed by Joe Bishara

Produced by Abbey Theater of Dublin

Priyanka Shetty in #CHARLOTTESVILLE. Photo by David Crone
In hindsight, the events that brought the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, to national attention in August 2017 can appear as a sign of things to come across the nation in the ensuing years, but the one-woman show #Charlottesville reminds us that the fatal clash that occurred there was not merely a national barometer but something that happened to individual people, whose individual lives continue to bear the effects. Written and performed by actor, director, playwright, and University of Virginia faculty member Priyanka Shetty, the play is constructed verbatim from interviews with a group of residents of the city. The resulting collage of voices and perspectives generates a fascinating, street-level oral history.

The play posits the interviews as a way to understand what happened around the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally and why, as well as to move beyond the city's abstracted existence as a hashtag. Shetty plays not only herself but also the interviewees, delineating them as individuals as she shifts from one to another, assisted by shifts in the lighting that accompany changes in speakers. The interviewees' roots in Charlottesville range from having come there for college to being able to measure family residence in centuries, and other differences, in demographics and situation, produce, say, views of underlying class and racial tensions where others see only small-town friendliness. The speakers talk about the months leading up to the rally, including white supremacist presence; the refusal of officials to prevent the rally based on provided evidence; and police inaction once things had gotten underway (a contrast to residents stepping up to defend a Black neighborhood). During the play's most affecting section, Shetty plays the mother of Heather Heyer, whose daughter was killed in an act of domestic terrorism of the kind that the right has been working on legalizing ever since. The play does not neglect the lingering emotional and psychological effects on residents and how their view of their city (and perhaps country) has changed.

The production employs a minimal set—a desk area to one side and some seats to the other—and only once, and with fitting deliberateness, does Shetty add to her all-black ensemble. Projected tweets serve as structural markers, and there is very sparing use of recorded lines of dialogue and still photos at a couple of key points. But the fabric of the production is woven from the words of the residents. And the fact that the city finally took down its statues of Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson on July 10, four years after the events that #Charlottesville addresses, shows that their story isn't over yet.

Black Women Dating White Men

Written by Somebody Jones

Directed by Khadifa Wong

Produced by Somebody Jones and Khadifa Wong

(top l-r) Christelle Belinga, Merryl Ansah, Clara Emanuel, (bottom l-r) Risha Silvera, Arianne Carless in BLACK WOMEN DATING WHITE MEN
Brianna (Christelle Belinga), Lisha (Arianne Carless), Aaliyah (Merryl Ansah), Cassy (Clara Emanuel), and Kamila (Risha Silvera) are Black women in their 20s and 30s, some English, some American, some married, some not, but all with white male partners. Black Women Dating White Men, crafted by playwright Somebody Jones from the text of interviews, explores these women's experiences and views in all of their complexity. The production cuts among different Zoom calls with all five women, creating thematic clusters that provide a nuanced, honest, often funny, and ultimately affirming look at the frustrations, pushback, and misunderstandings as well as the empathy, support, and joys involved in their relationships.

This transnational group of women touches on topics including the reactions of others—whether family, community, or strangers in the street—some of which change over time and some of which depend on geography (as well as social topographies); the effects of disjunctions in lived experience between them and their partners; how they are received differently alone and with their partner; and what drew them to their partners in the first place. Much more is covered in their wide-ranging conversations, all delivered via excellent, extremely naturalistic performances by the cast. The cast's lively interchange and undeniable chemistry (bolstered in no small part by the reactions to whoever is speaking) lend the approximately 40-minute production a captivating immediacy, a sense that you have wandered into a thoughtful, entertaining gathering of real-life friends who can speak freely with one another and know that they will be understood (even if not always agreed with). If you're looking to make a commitment, Black Women Dating White Men is a keeper.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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