Black Joy Takes Center Stage In “A Love Like This”

Though things are still pretty strange in theatreland, hope does seem to be on the horizon. Last week, I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

While I’m still a good while off from my second shot and my immunity, the strict social distancing measures in place at my recent adventure to New City Players’ (NCP) production of A Love Like This still made me feel pretty damn safe.

Pre-show, ushers took great pains to ensure that all theatergoers stayed masked unless eating or drinking and that only at their six-feet-apart seats. The play was also held outdoors in the Peck Courtyard of the Broward Center, making contagion far less likely than it would be in an indoor space. 

But as with Miami New Drama’s similarly COVID-safe Seven Deadly Sins, the play’s somewhat unconventional staging felt less like an unavoidable accommodation than an interesting atmospheric element of overall abnormal production. This unique show results from NCP’s partnership with the Art Prevails Project, an all-black and multidisciplinary South Florida artistic collective. 

However, before writing any further, I would like to note that this may be one of those times that it would be foolish of me to try to claim objectivity since, though I had no involvement with this production, in particular, I’m still an NCP company member. There’s also the fact that I feel a little uncomfortable training my white gaze on an all-black production, but as times are still kind of insane, I guess it would be a shame not to write something about one of the few shows I’ve been able to attend in-person over the past few months.

Maybe this will have to be less of a review than a reflection, or perhaps just a celebration, since A Love Like This offered a lot to appreciate! The six short plays that make up A Love Like This were all written by local creatives of color and are united by their focus on love, whether that be romantic love, familial love, or that oh-so-special love between friends. Some of these pieces, of course, felt more realized than others, but all had perspectives worth exploring on a kind of love that is often left out of the mainstream limelight; the love found in relationships between people of color. 

The vibes were already pretty jubilant even before curtain, thanks to pre-show music by Miami band Purple Flux, and the energy only went up from there when the night kicked off with a poetry-infused introduction from narrators Nyah Hardmon and Marino Toussaint. Then, the first play up was Pops: A Musical by Cry Alexandra, which focuses on the relationship between a daughter (Ayomi Russell) and her father (Byron Holton) as she helps him come to terms with the fact that she has a new man (Xaire) in her life. The conversation occasionally gets so heated that the characters erupt into song, and though this was the only “musical” of the evening, plenty of musicality was on the table throughout. 

For instance, the narrators reappeared with more poetic stylings and the occasional musical number in the interludes between the evening’s plays. The second kicks off with a simple call and response duet between two sisters (Maggie B. Maxwell and Stephon Duncan). In the distance Makes The Heart by Daryl Patricethey are soon joined by their long-lost third (JaShae Jones), who has reappeared only in the wake of their mother’s death. And though the next reunion ends up dragging plenty of resentments to the surface, the past proves no match for the characters’ deep-rooted sisterly love. 

The love between black women was also the subject of Double Dutch by Kelli Rae Jordan, the title of which describes the favorite childhood game of long-time friends Anne, Denise, and Candace (Maggie B. Maxwell, Stephon Duncan, and JaShae Jones.) Now in their thirties, the women commiserate shared experiences of trying to hold their own in a world that is all too eager to pigeonhole them. They also celebrate the friendship that has sustained them through the worst.

On the other hand, it’s love between black men portrayed in Deep Cuts, in which a young black man (Zaire) searches for guidance from an older pair (Byron Holton and Kent Wilson) he encounters at his local barbershop as he reckons with the aftermath of a complicated relationship. Especially as a counterbalance to their frequent demonization in the culture, it was refreshing to hear a story that instead emphasizes black mens’ exquisite sensitivity and capacity to care.

Black men, of course, can also be fine AF, as the character Jamila (Ayomi Russell) reminds us in the play Black Coffee. Jamila is swept off her feet when a routine coffee break gives way to a fast-moving flirtation with a dark and handsome stranger (Marino Toussaint). Still, it’s her charm and verve up, leaving the more significant impression where the audience is concerned. 

Black Coffee was one of two plays written by Darius V. Daughtry, the Art Prevails Project founder and evening’s director. The other is its memorable final piece, Of Covid And Cocktails, a Shakespeare-inspired tale of how a waiter’s (Kent Wilson) subtle engineering helps fuel a black couple’s budding romance. 

After their fated meeting, sparks quickly begin to fly between the aptly named Horatio (Darius V. Daughtry) and enigmatic Bev (Sheena O. Murray), whose initial aloofness belies a softer heart. Though Horatio’s attempts to woo Bev escalate into a full-on rap battle, in the end, it’s the aftermath of a racially charged tragedy that comes to cement their bond. 

While far more attention is paid to black love than to black sorrow in A Love Like This, such moments serve as a poignant reminder of the institutional injustice that puts that live under constant threat. And though it may be hard at first glance to see what a collection of primarily feel-good stories about incandescent black love has to do with large-scale issues like racism, I have always believed in the power of theatre to instill empathy. For some, connecting to the characters in stories like these may be the first step to greater awareness. All that is at risk if our country continues to devalue black lives. 

Meanwhile, I was also theatrically intrigued by the use of slam poetry and rap to enhance A Love Like This’s storytelling. As has been demonstrated by smash hits like Hamilton, influence by art forms that have traditionally been minority-dominated has the potential to push theatre in plenty of new and exciting directions. However, if industry gatekeepers continue to enact barriers between non-white theatre artists and chances to share their gifts with the world, that’s the progress we might never get to see. 

Thus, I can only hope that our recent reckonings have planted lasting change within the theatre industry. For my own entirely selfish reasons as much as anything else— because I can’t wait to see what shows the talented writers and performers who fueled A Love Like This get a chance to bring their artistry to next!

A Love Like This plays for only one more weekend, with performances on the evenings of April 22nd through 25th. And since strict social distancing also means strictly limited attendance, I think you better grab those tickets fast!

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