It’s happening again. A few days ago, I wrote about the tyranny of relevance in modern American theater, the way in which plays like American Son, whether cynically or earnestly, put hot-button, often horrifying real issues inside clunky dramatic containers, trusting that the political significance of their subject matter will absolve them of their artistic shortcomings. It’s not fun to criticize these plays. Much more often than not, they are earnest — even deeply, personally so — and though they might represent a certain kind of producorial opportunism, they also represent artists wrestling with exactly how to hold the mirror up to the brutal nature of our moment. The things they’re taking on are hard — but so is art. And we have a way of losing our creative and critical rigor when we’re faced with real-life injustices. We start to waffle, to wonder whether representation — simply seeing up on stage that such-and-such a problem exists — is enough.
It’s not, and neither is Eve’s Song. Patricia Ione Lloyd has called her play “a queer female version of Get Out,” but the show now onstage at the Public has none of the sharp-edged, unsentimental agility that description implies. It’s effortful and diffuse, with a forced, sitcomish sense of humor that dissolves into long stretches of maudlin faux-poetry. Director Jo Bonney is working hard but can barely keep the play knitted together, it’s such an undisciplined grab bag of varying tones, loose logic, and banal theatrical tropes. The design choices feel rote and the performances — with the exception of Kadijah Raquel as the older daughter in the show’s central family — seem strained and limited by the unsteady text.
And yet, when the house lights came up, the woman behind me was weeping. Though I was upset for what were probably very different reasons, I get it. Eve’s Song pushes hard — it’s calculated for tears. Especially in its latter half, the play aims for a kind of lyrical, eulogistic tone: Its story is about the everyday dangers faced by black women, especially queer black women, and it looks at that subject through the lens of a disintegrating family drama. By its end, we’ve witnessed three monologues by “Spirit Women,” performers playing the ghosts of real murdered black women, who are haunting the home of the Johnsons, a successful “vice-president of acquisitions” named Deborah (De’Adre Aziza) and her two children, college-aged Lauren (Raquel) and high schooler Mark (Karl Green). These speeches mark the story’s descent from seemingly cheerful normality into irrepressible, righteous anger and eventual violence, and Bonney and her designers punctuate them with multiple gunshots — loud cracks that make the performers hurl and contort their bodies, while Hana S. Kim’s projections show us echoes and flashes of their flailing shapes. “They called me Kerrice Lewis,” says one (Rachel Watson-Jih). “I was shot 15 times, tied up, and put into the trunk of a car and set on fire.” “I knew when people found out I was trans I would end up dead,” says another (Tamara M. Williams). “They called me Amia Tyrae Berryman.” “Who do you talk to when everyone you love is dead?” says the third (Vernice Miller). “I was called Kathryn Johnston when they shot me and killed me … I was almost 100 years old.”
These things are horrible, and they’re true, and they’re being presented with the heaviest of hands. For the woman behind me, it worked — or at least, it made her cry. But every time a Spirit Woman took the stage, I gritted my teeth. The language Lloyd has given them is heavy and writerly, like a first crack at a monologue exercise, and Bonney has the actors undulating and writhing in ways that almost feel like a parody of interpretive dance. And there are the gunshots, and the garish, silhouetted projections (which are probably supposed to evoke chalk body outlines but instead reminded me of those old iPod ads), and the fact that after each Spirit Woman appearance, literal cracks appear in the walls of the Johnson’s home, or in their floor, or the electricity starts sparking. Their house is falling apart — get it? There’s also Bonney’s decision to have them move set pieces when they’re not doing their haunting thing, and for a long time, moving those set pieces is all they do. I’m sure the gesture is supposed to make their eerie presence feel more integrated into the show, but it simply feels expedient and fake-creepy, as well as lessening the performers’ actual impact. “I am a very important, very tragic ghost, but right now I will push this wall four feet to the left.”
In the midst of the self-serious poeticism and ham-fisted house-crumbling, I also found myself thinking of a different play. Jackie Sibblies Drury took on a black suburban family trying to keep their home in apple-pie order in Fairview, and the cracks that eventually ruptured that façade were legitimately shattering. Fairview built a box for itself and then burst out of it, requiring us to interrogate ourselves as witnesses with a ferocity and a clarity of voice that Eve’s Song never achieves. Lloyd heaps more actual suffering on her audience but never really pierces us, not with the tragic or the comic.
“This play explores the violence and danger of living as a black person in America — and it’s a comedy,” writes the Public’s dramaturge in a program note. But there are no real, robust laughs in Eve’s Song. The comedy is of the threadbare family-at-dinner variety and puts a lot of its eggs in a particularly clichéd basket: the “spotlight on me so I can have a funny monologue that the rest of my family doesn’t hear” gimmick. Eve’s Song has a few more theatrical gestures in its tool belt than American Son, but the ones it leans on are so old and easy that they make you cringe like a bad pun. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to tell whether and where Lloyd and Bonney are aiming for parody.
When Lauren starts dating a woke-AF older girl, the play spends a lot of time, and a lot of attempts at humor, on the intensity of first love, but also on the new girlfriend’s politics and self-presentation. Upendo Haki Supreme (Ashley D. Kelley) is a charismatic activist with a self-given name (she used to be Tiffany), a vocabulary full of words like intentionality, a mane of multihued braids, and a closet of artsy fashion statements (Emilio Sosa’s costumes, like the play, are on the nose: Lauren’s favorite color is purple … So guess what color Upendo’s hair and lots of her clothes are). Upendo is introduced as a teaching figure: “Are you from Africa?” asks the smitten, never-been-to-a-protest-or-let-her-hair-down Lauren, and her crush replies, “Aren’t we all?” She also provides the play’s title. “Since the first African woman, the one we all come from,” Upendo tells Lauren, “everyone was born with a song … This oppressive society has made us all forget our song … It’s the song on the wind in the garden of Eden. Black women — we remember our song when we die and we sing it with the spirits that come to take us in death … Imagine what the world would be like if we lived life remembering our song.”
This is Lloyd in lyrical mode again, and in certain ways it seems we’re supposed to trust that Upendo is delivering the play’s truths — she’s the catalyst who takes Lauren from repressed good girl to released young woman, confident in herself and honest about her long-brewing rage. But she’s also an insufferable caricature, self-regarding and stereotypical and frequently lacking consistent internal logic in the way of underdeveloped characters. When Lloyd is ready to move on to other things, she has Lauren break up with Upendo after a protest in which both girls get arrested and put in jail. “All of this could’ve been avoided if you would have followed the training and complied,” says Upendo, suddenly didactic and willfully obtuse. “Why didn’t you comply?” Lauren, now at her breaking-open point, thunders that she’s been complying all her life and that Upendo is “too compliant” for her. Since when? Since the play needed to be done with her.
Upendo is supposed to represent one pole of black womanhood, while the controlled, proper, I’ve-always-played-by-the-rules-and-yet-I’m-drowning Deborah represents the other. But Upendo is too sketchily, semi-satirically drawn to put much weight on her side of the seesaw, and Deborah is weighty in the wrong way. We get most of her increasingly fraught interiority through those spotlit monologues, which are supposed to feel seething and vulnerable and simply feel like unpolished writing. Aziza’s got to muscle her way through the play’s melodramatic climax on the dubious strength of one of these creaking stand-and-deliver pieces — and though the story she tells is supposed to shock and wound us, and to represent the awful risks faced by black women who stand up to an abusive system, it simply ends up feeling dramatically schlocky. Like Eve’s Song as a whole, it thuds where it should penetrate, leaving us, yet again, dully aware of one of the world’s present horrors and, artistically, miles and miles wide of revelation.
Eve’s Song is at the Public Theater through December 9.