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A loud chorus of moans erupted in the audience at “Incendiary,” Dave Harris’s well-named, world-premiere play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The unusually vocal response was prompted by a character’s disturbing remark in this wackadoo satire about a woman so psychologically damaged by abuse that she hatches a violent plot to spring her homicidal son from prison.
No twist in the play — a kind of sketch comedy/video game sendup gone overboard — is meant to be taken as anything but outrageous provocation. And yet this particular line, uttered by Terrance Fleming’s incarcerated Eric, comments on the mass murder of children in such a callous way that it leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.
Even at a theater with a reputation for pushing boundaries, Eric’s outburst compels you to wonder about intention — and where, maybe, you personally draw a line. (I’m not going to repeat the words here.) Woolly, and I, like plays that unsettle spectators, force us out of our comfort zones and into a rethinking of the sometimes viscerally upsetting power of language. But I suppose what “Incendiary” shows me, distilled through that one cutting statement, is where my own line might be.
“Incendiary’s” author and cast, well-drilled by director Monty Cole, have lots to show us: about America’s gun culture, our affinity for violence, the pipeline that feeds Black men into hopeless spells behind bars. Set designer Andrew Boyce has some spirited fun with the comedy’s explosive climax. And as a mom who resorts to weaponizing both her guilt and her scars, Nehassaiu deGannes offers a sympathetic portrait of traumatized vulnerability.
At this point in its development, though, the story’s serious, sociopolitical aspirations are overwhelmed by coarser inclinations.
Of a decidedly more serene sensibility is Theater Alliance’s revival of “The Bluest Eye,” a stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel of that title that was first produced by the company in 2006. In director Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe’s new production, the themes in Morrison’s story of tormented identity and cruel judgment remain as potent as ever.
It’s a story about belonging, too, as embodied by Amiah Marshall’s Pecola, a Black child who has been so conditioned for shame that she believes the only path to happiness is Whiteness. Lydia R. Diamond, the dramatist who adapted Morrison’s book, places Pecola in a 1940s landscape of privation and danger. The adults in her rural Ohio community don’t seem to consider nurture a birthright for a lonely little girl, and so we are witnesses in the Anacostia Playhouse as Pecola scrounges, if you will, for the table scraps of a normal life.
Melanie A. Lawrence and Khalia Muhammad portray neighborhood kids who befriend Pecola, and the pair take on the bulk of the evening’s narration; like Marshall, they contribute incisive portraits — though Lawrence’s Claudia and Muhammad’s Freida are anchored in a reality that emotionally immature Pecola can’t quite handle. A false world of Whiteness in Shirley Temple movies and little blond figures on candy wrappers has enraptured Pecola. It’s not the American outsider fantasy of assimilation that Pecola fixates on, but a more tragically unattainable escape.
The furnishings by set designer Andrew Boyce are, like the characters, modest, and Ramsey-Zöe drums up the right homespun rhythms in the Playhouse’s black box theater. Of special achievement is Pauline Lamb as Claudia and Freida’s mother, a woman with no illusions about how much this world offers her. Delusion is Pecola’s heart-rending affliction; one leaves “The Bluest Eye” with hope that a child’s eyes are wider open these days to who they are, not who they can’t be.
A coming-of-age story of more athletic dimension is in residence until Sunday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. “The Humours of Bandon,” a smart solo piece written and performed by Margaret Mc Auliffe, is about a teenage step dancer powering through Ireland’s ferocious and backstabbing world of Irish dancing competitions.
In a fleet and funny hour or so, Mc Auliffe — an actor-dancer herself — slips into the guise of 17-year-old Annie, whose heart and feet are set on winning the championship of her dancing league. There are apparently a bunch of these leagues in Ireland, producing talent of a caliber that can fill multiple ensembles of “Riverdance.”
The particular pleasure of this widely toured piece, presented by Solas Nua and directed by Stefanie Preissner, is the primer Mc Auliffe gives on the myriad steps of this singular dance style, characterized by arms held stiffly as the legs and feet work mesmerizing magic. As with any specialty, this one comes with its own lingo and quirks: Annie explains to us that the Irish dancing finals consists of three rounds — reel, traditional and set dance — and that the judges not only look for precision, but personality as well.
Mc Auliffe conveys both. Which is why “The Humours of Bandon” can send you into a little happy dance.
Incendiary, by Dave Harris. Directed by Monty Cole. Set, Andrew Boyce; lighting, Mextly Couzin; costumes, Samantha Jones; sound, Tosin Olufolabi. With Shannon Dorsey, Breon Arzell, Brandon J. Pierce. About 90 minutes. Through June 25 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net.
The Bluest Eye, adapted from Toni Morrison’s novel by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe. Set, Tiffani Sydnor; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, John Alexander; sound, Justin Schmitz. With Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour, Nikki Owens, Tre’mon Mills, Devin Nikki Thomas. About 100 minutes. Through June 25 at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. theateralliance.com.
The Humours of Bandon, written and performed by Margaret Mc Auliffe. Directed by Stefanie Preissner. Set, David Fagan; lighting, Eoin Winning. About 65 minutes. Through Sunday at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. solasnua.org.