The Black Theater Ensemble's original production, Shadow Boxed, took place this past weekend at Lerner's Black Box Theater. A student-produced series of student-written vignettes, ranging from sad to happy and serious to funny, was impressive both in its professionalism and subtlety.
Shadow Boxed was more a collection of character sketches written by various members of BTE than a story, and there was nothing fairy-tale-like about the performance except the brilliant acting, which transformed serious Columbia students into bigoted politicians, preachers on the street corner, drunk homeless women, and a wide array of other characters.
It was provocative. It was imaginative. It was real. Far from creating caricatures or stereotypes, Shadow Boxed portrayed multiple facets of truth that seemed to dissect life itself. Articulating the problems of racism, sexism, and classism without presuming to find an easy solution, the production was as thought provoking as it was entertaining.
The writers "were set out on an un-detailed mission to create stories of life, reality, ambition, success, and failure," director Erika Danielle Smith, CC '02, wrote in the program note. The five principal writers--Adaoha Hamilton, CC '02, Derin Adesida, BC '05, Marcus Hunter, CC '03, Courtenay Barton, CC '05, and Mikael Awake, CC '03--pieced together segments that could have stood well on their own but complemented each other like the bricks in the simple but effective apartment-house set.
The show worked well, Akinwale Ogundipe, CC '05, said, because of the "chemistry" between the performers. As the street-corner preacher Reverend Joe, Ogundipe appeared in several scenes and tied the work together by preaching "out of the scripture of my own sanctified life."
Shadow Boxed proved that everything was "sanctified," every story valid and deserving of being told. Miss Leona, a character created by Adesida, was played by Katherine Schmoke, CC '03. Schmoke's vivid interpretation of Miss Leona, a former dancer now living on the streets, cut deeply into our consciousness--albeit humorously--with questions like, "don't it feel like we're waiting for somethin' to happen?"
The concept of change pervaded Shadow Boxed as a whole and was explicit in Hamilton's "History of Harlem" scene that opened the show. "This is not Harlem, this is Morningside Heights," Edward Rueda, CC '05, asserted. Bernard, the rich white politician in a business suit, represented the corporate takeover of the neighborhood, complete with Old Navy and Starbucks.
The comic "Revolutions" featured Hamilton as a charismatic vendor of "revolutions:" hats with attached "genuine wool" dreadlocks. As thought-provoking as Hamilton's other writings, the scene pointed a critical finger at what may be considered a material revolution.
The anger fueled by years of oppression manifested itself in "Consumed," also written as Hamilton, the story of a black woman talking to a therapist about "making hate, not love" with the "political correctness of the modern interracial relationship."
Although the story was humorous, the woman was intent on biting her lover to death, "devouring his soul in some ancient cannibalistic ritual." The scene was about the reclamation of pride.
One of the characters in Derin Adesida's "United Colors of Black" gave up his "slave name," Leroy, for "Mufasa" while his siblings made mocking Lion King jokes about the "king of the jungle." In one of the scene's most memorable lines, a character asserted, "I'm the king of this concrete jungle of America."
Not everything deserved laughter, however. Hunter wrote and starred in "Liquid Memories," based on Michael, a character he created for a one-act play about casting away memories and exploring himself. Amid darkness except for a stark white spotlight, Michael struggled to see himself as a black homosexual man.
Hunter's poetic and dance-like performance highlighted ideas such as, "pain, like good, is too real to have color," as Michael repeatedly washed his sadness away in a bowl reminiscent of a baptismal vessel or pagan altar.
Remembering his mother's singing--"your voice the medium between yes and no"--Michael ended his monologue with "Amen" to confirm that his self-exploration was a prayer. Hunter says that the play from which the character is derived is about "an exploration of self" and "being saved."
Ending once more with the "problem" of Harlem and Bernard's attempt to fix "this colorful community," Shadow Boxed concluded with a scene similar to the one in the beginning, giving the work a sense of continuity and completeness. Although unable to reach any answers--unrealistic in the two-hour time-frame--the ensemble's production managed to move through the humor, joy, sadness, and hope of experiences that take on universal significance. As the show's director, Smith noted, this "inventive and innovative production ... seeks to beg the questions" even if they're unanswerable.
The praiseworthy writing and acting in Shadow Boxed was supported by Mikael Awake's poignant sound design, ranging from jazz to hip-hop to the sound of rain. The simple lighting design by Foluseke Somolu, an MFA student in the Graduate Film Division, kept the attention on the characters without unnecessary flashiness, and costuming by Denaka Perry, CC '04, was appropriately realistic.
Without a shadow of a doubt, BTE's Shadow Boxed was real.