The Robey Theatre, headed by Ben Guillory, comes roaring back after the Covid-induced layover, with a meticulously researched and workshopped performance piece that tackles the biggest questions of our current situation in the world: no mean task.
A liner note describes the development process that brought some 45 community members together to evaluate the communally-created A Heated Discussion, bringing together 12 doppelgangers of the most original minds in black America – from Ida B. Wells to Tupac Shakur – for what is, indeed, a heated discussion.
Playwright Levy Lee Simon has woven together these voices at the behest of Yoruban orishas (gods), especially Shango, who is alternatively described as a god of war, but also justice.
It is enough to recognize the iconic characters at this discussion without much background in the origins of the gods who have set it in motion. For most of us, our heads will be spinning at the ideas that ricochet around the stage. But we are entertained by the transformative power of theatre in recreating such 20th Century icons as Martin Luther King (Garrett Davis), Richard Pryor (Philip Bell), Maya Angelou (Kimberly Bailey), Bob Marley (Alex W.S. T. Chumley) or Tupac Shakur (Kyle Sparks) and more.
I’ve saved my favorites for last, because they represent as distaff side to the black experience in their time. Both James Baldwin (Julio Hansen) and Lorraine Hansberry (Tiffany Coty) were revolutionary voices, but they also dealt with the otherness of their sexual orientation at a time when it was verboten. These two offer such uncanny representations of well-known figures, it is almost unnerving.
In the end, however, when it comes time for a conclusion to be drawn, the character of Shango coopts the discussion. Artistic Director Guillory appears as Shango, representing all wars, reminding us that the work continues. It is a lot to take in, and well worth staying for the talk-back with the actors afterward.
Supporting this ambitious enterprise, Robey veteran designer Evan A Bartroletti creates a heavenly, gauzy plane where Orishas dwell, while the spirits must mill about in a decorative garden reminiscent of Eden. And on that note, as director, Guillory works wonders, keeping his large cast constantly in motion while the discussion, mostly cerebral, takes place. Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes pay close attention to the real-life wardrobes of the characters, and Benedict Conran’s lighting helps unite heaven and earth. Other notable assistance comes from composer Cydney Wayne Davis, choreographer Jan Bouldin Blunt, and graphic designer Jason Mimms.
A Heated Discussion runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm through May 15th. Tickets, $35.00, available through online ticketing: http:// therobeytheatrecompany.org. Or for reservations call 213-489-7402