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REVIEW: Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show (Pillsbury House + Theatre)

Kenyai O’Neal and PaviElle French in Pillsbury House Theatre’s Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show. Photo by Rich Ryan.

I attended the opening performance of Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show at the Pillsbury House Theatre. Sharon Bridgforth wrote the play in the avant-garde theatre form called theatrical jazz. Under the direction of Ebony Noelle Golden, the show promised to be a collaborative work with a creative theme related to performance art, music that is an aural design, and movement choreographed to closely integrate with the vocal performance.

The result was a show that exceeded my expectations with an exciting new theatre form, presented as a radical re-interpretation of the original staging. The impetus for this re-interpretation (soon to be a legend) is due to a lead actress hurting her ankle during the last week of rehearsal – leaving her in too much pain to walk, to say nothing of dance. The acting ensemble did not cancel the scheduled opening; instead, they opted to present an altered performance consistent with the spirit of the play without compromising the fundamental creativity of the collaborative process.

PaviElle French, Florinda Bryant, and Aimee K. Bryant in a scene from Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show. Photo by Rich Ryan.

The four actors sat behind a row of music stands placed mid-stage. Stage right was HoneyPot (Florinda Bryant) and Duck (Aimee Bryant). Between Time (Kenyai O’Neal) and Flesh (PaviElle French) were stage left. Scenes flowed like currents beneath the surface of the ocean as the performers portrayed vignettes, told anecdotes, spoke monologues, sang, and took on additional characters. There was an amazing level of expression created by the scope of movement and the intensity of interaction made possible by four actors seated in a row (one with her foot in ice).

The first and most interesting story that bubbled up takes place at the Juke Joint, where HoneyPot and Duck act out their infamous reputations as assassins. These two African-American women are victims of unrelenting domestic abuse and social discrimination, resulting in a kind of PTSD or misanthropy. HoneyPot carries a knife in her breast and isn’t afraid to whip it out if you rile her. Duck is known to pull out a gun because of her problems processing her emotions, when a low-life messes with her. When she swings her pistol around, everyone knows to “duck”, hence her nickname. Duck also has the play’s funniest lines. Rather late in the performance, the Mermaid Man/Lady is revealed as a transvestite character who is well-known by the patrons of the Juke Joint.

In the end, the performers create a mental space where “the past, the present, the future/the living, the dead, the not yet born, co-exist”,  a threshold where much of the action happens in the audience’s imagination instead of onstage. One’s mind grasps at how associations, connected themes, and assembled fragmentary scenes blends into a story. To some, this kind of interactivity is the Holy Grail of abstract, collaborative theatre.

Florinda Bryant and Kenyai O’Neal in Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Christopher Heilman’s set design is an environmental work similar to the type you might walk through in an art gallery. Ribbons of aqua-blue and aqua-green paper hang from lighting grid to give the impression the characters are at the bottom of the ocean. Stage left hangs a large, circular neon tube of white light, like a big bubble in the water. It represents the family secrets that are expressed and bubble-up to the surface to be dealt with in the present. Mankwe Ndosi composed music that is integrated with the vocal text using song, dance and instruments, seamlessly incorporating Gospel, African, hip-hop, and jazz.

When an actress’ temporary injury threatened to cancel a show’s opening night, the acting ensemble decided the show must go on. In is a stunner of a happenstance, that decision has led to the creation of a new form of theatre that holds potential for new theatrical development.

Dat Black Mermaid Man/Lady/Show plays through June 24 at Pillsbury House + Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Dan Reiva