Racism, post-partum depression, compassion course through “Amerikin”
At the start of “Amerikin,” Jeff Browning greets his newborn son with a slew of swear words, some loving enthusiasm and more than a little TMI. He confesses to the wee fella that his mother might have a slow time embracing him. (“I’m a little worried about your mom, tell you the truth. She, uh … ain’t been herself since you came out.”)
Once they’re back at the Browning home — where much of Chisa Hutchinson’s unsettling and riveting play (onstage at the Curious Theatre Company through April 15) unfurls — it becomes clear that Michelle Browning is struggling with post-partum depression. A lullaby she sings later in the play is wrenching for the dark lyrics she reworks.
Her despair is just one of the many things ailing the Brownings. Neighbor and friend Alma wanders over to the house to suggest gently to Jeff that he stop calling out for his dog in the early hours because, well, it’s the early hours, and the dog’s name might, y’know, offend. (I guessed “Adolf.” Silly me.) It’s not even a proper name, just an age-old epithet.
Yup, Jeff is a racist. He’s hoping to be accepted into the local chapter of the World Knights, a spawn of the Ku Klux Klan. His friend and sponsor Dylan (Michael McNeill) is just as anxious as Jeff to get the results of his ancestry test, so they can get about the business of saving the white race.
The news isn’t what Jeff expected. He’s got Sub-Saharan African DNA coursing through him. Jeff’s tragedy is the play’s clever conceit (one that has real-life exemplars: ask the real-life, self-described “supremacist” who tried to take over a North Dakota town and make it whites only). Jeff gets his fried Poot (Brian Landis Folkins) to doctor the test but somehow it’s made public. Once it is, Jeff becomes the target of rancor and acts of domestic terror. And Michelle’s depression isn’t lifting.
(Kudos to sound designer Max Silverman for having a baby-mewling recording that is effective but won’t make you want to smack the people in row 32 on a flight.)
Sean Scrutchins’ Jeff is rattled and increasingly lost. He’s marooned with a wife he doesn’t love, who in turn isn’t able to love their infant. Candace Joice does finely calibrated and difficult work taking Michelle into a sunken place she may not be able to make her way out of.
Whatever sense of belonging Jeff sought by being a member of an exclusive but hardly impressive club has been shattered. Yet he has people pulling for him despite his wobbly but hateful ideology. There’s Folkins’ oddly likable Poot, Jeff’s best friend since childhood. And it’s pretty clear from their first, awkward exchanges that Alma (Karen Slack) and Jeff had a relationship prior to him marrying Michelle.
In a bold gesture, the playwright introduces two new characters in Act II: Washington Post reporter Gerald Lamott (Cajardo Lindsey) and his cracking-wise daughter, Chris (Kristina Fountaine), a journalism student. When Gerald comes across a Facebook post that Alma shared recounting Jeff’s tribulations, he believes he’s on to a unique and heart-rending American story. (He has.) Chris has her concerns about dad traveling south to Sharpsburg, Md., where the battle of Antietam is seemingly still being fought. So, she joins him. Their road trip tête-à-tête is punctuated with generational differences of the Martin-vs.-Malcolm variety but also loving respect and nuance.
What happens at the Browning home, a mess that signals the brokenness of its inhabitants, might look like a Black playwright’s revenge on the poor white guy were Hutchinson not so compassionate. Instead, Jeff becomes a victim of his own emptying need and desperate madness.
Continuing the company’s 25th-anniversary theme of what it means to be an American, “Amerikin” brims with weighty ideas – about identity and belonging, about fragility draped in Confederate flags and baptized in flimsy tales of purity. But it never sags. The ensemble is ace, galling us (McNeill); tempering us (Lindsey and Fountaine); making us smile in spite of himself (Folkins); and sounding for the audience a sad note of excuse-making affection (Slack). The scenic, lighting, sound and costume designs meet and uplift the performances.
This is the first production that Jada Suzanne Dixon has directed at Curious since taking the reins as artistic director at the start of the season. Last fall, she moonlighted a bit, helming the Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado’s sensational boxing drama, “The Royale.” An actor herself, Dixon’s canny work with other actors shouldn’t come as a surprise, but her deft handling of stagecraft and collaboration with her team bring a satisfying fluidity to the pacing and staging.
This week, Curious announces the first season Dixon will have programmed.
IF YOU GO
“Amerikin.” Written by Chisa Hutchinson. Directed by Jada Suzanne Dixon. Featuring Sean Scrutchins, Brian Landis Folkins, Karen Slack, Michael McNeill, Candace Joice and Cajardo Lindsey. At the Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma. Through April 15. For tickets and info: curioustheatreco.org.
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