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Theater Review: Face Off Kalamazoo's Summer Season

Face Off Theatre Company

Theater companies around the world are trying to find new ways to reach audiences as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on. That includes theater groups in Kalamazoo. WMUK reviewer Gordon Bolar has this look at the Face Off Theatre Company’s summer season.

Does work in the theater stop when the playhouse goes dark during a pandemic? Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during a plague that closed theaters in London.

Thankfully, Kalamazoo audiences can take advantage of the Face Off Theatre Company’s offerings this summer. In recent months, it served up its Virtual New Play Series with online readings of three, ten-minute plays illuminating the black experience.

The first, “The Special Friend,” depicts a heated discussion between two African-American sisters and their father about the revelation of a family secret. Dawn Richberg’s one-act presents a seldom considered examination of LGBTQ+ invisibility within the black community as the family debates whether to include the partner of the lesbian sister in the mother's funeral program. Although a stronger father figure might have added interest to the conflict and underscored the family’s choices, the interaction does shed light on some surprising prejudices.

“Is Black Enough?,” a virtual one-act by Shea-Lin Shobowale-Benson deals with a different issue. In this play, a young African American actor nominated for his film work must choose between attending the all-black Cecily Awards ceremony or the prestigious Academy Awards held the same evening. Although the actor wins a “Cecily” while surrounded and supported by his own people, he fails to take home an Oscar. In the play’s bitter-sweet ending, he’s left with mixed emotions and wonders why he needs approval from the predominately white Academy.

One of the stronger plays this summer in terms of virtual staging and script is Vickie G. Hampton’s “I’m Not Buying It,” directed by WMUK’s Earlene McMichael. Hampton explores racial profiling in the retail industry by allowing the audience to overhear the internal dialogue of a nervous white jewelry store clerk as a young, black, male customer approaches a display of watches.

At first, we assume the clerk is talking to a security guard on his headset. But he’s really speaking to the inner voice of a white society warning him about the dangers of black males in high-end retail settings. Hampton offers a surprising ending as the security guard, who’s also black, assures the clerk that the “suspect” isn’t a threat because he has a white girlfriend.

The Zoom video of each of these plays is available on the Face Off Facebook page. There’s also “Black Lives, Black Words,” a three-part virtual series of programming  led by playwright Reginald Edmund that wrapped up Saturday. This partnership with Western Michigan University’s Theatre Department featured readings of plays, poetry and spoken word.

Face Off is also collaborating with Farmers Alley Theatre and the Black Arts and Cultural Center to produce free, live performances of “Three Little Birds,” featuring the music and lyrics of Bob Marley. The musical will be staged outdoors in La Crone and Bronson parks later this month. It continues a summer filled with creative solutions by Face Off and its community partners.

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