Review: NIGHTBIRD at Austin Playhouse

The production runs through March 25, 2023.

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Written by playwright and winner of the 2022 Lambda literary award, R. Eric Thomas gives us in NIGHTBIRD a layered story of an artist, a family, a community and our country. But at heart, there are personal questions it raises for its protagonist Chelle. What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be a black artist? What does it mean to be a black artist who is lost and making her way home? According to actor Taji Senior, these questions are at the heart of NIGHTBIRD, now running at Austin Playhouse. Senior plays Chelle in this three character story. She is accompanied by Hollis S. Edwards III, who plays her brother Willard, and Indiia Wilmott, who portrays Thalia, the interior designer Willard has hired to remodel their childhood home.

Chelle is working her way home both literally and figuratively. She struggles with making an art piece to replace a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, that will stand in the park across the street from her childhood home - the home to which she now returns as a new owner. Her brother Willard has organized the Juneteenth event in the park during which Chelle's piece will be unveiled. Willard's experience of freedom and Chelle's experience of what Willard calls "mental slavery" drive the conflict in this story. Wilmott's Thalia, is a refreshing balance to their constant bickering. She symbolizes vision of the literal and figurative future in her love of Star Trek. We Trekkers get this!

Star Trek, slavery, family dynamics, art, and more are packed into Thomas's NIGHTBIRD. These characters are grappling with their past, present and future with varying degrees of success. The exploration of a country's racism plays out here on a personal level by those who have been most directly impacted by it, and Thomas gives us a script that addresses these complexities with depth, ease, and often, humor.

NIGHTBIRD is a rich and thick play worthy of thought and dialogue, and it's scope is deep and wide - so much so there's not enough room to discuss all of it in this review. However, by placing the broader issues it addresses in the context of family dynamics in such an intimate setting as an adult's childhood home, these issues become at heart, about grappling with individual identity in a culture that is in flux. Add to this director Marcus McQuirter's excellent casting of a trio of effective actors, and you've got just over two hours of engaging and provocative theatre.

Senior gives us an intense and powerful Chelle who stands alone on a sparse (but later magical) stage in the opening scene. Edwards soon appears as her handsome, vibrant, creative brother. As Willard (and "Cousin", his podcasting alter ego) Edwards gives Willard a potent counter to Senior's intense Chelle. As Thalia, Wilmott brings much needed optimism, levity, and love to the ensemble. Director McQuirter ticks all the marks on this reviewer's list for giving us appropriate blocking and action that makes sense and keeps fresh what could be many a long and chatty scene. Scenic designer Theada Haining manages a feat in which any theatre geek who is also a Trekker will delight. Lighting designer Mark Novick does good work here, but I'm not sure I understand why some actors were in the dark for a few pivotal scenes.

After the show, my companion and I discussed how much richer this experience could be among a broadly diverse audience. So if you identify in any way as someone other than white/cis-gender/straight and male, I hope this review will embolden you to get to the Austin Playhouse's production of NIGHTBIRD. Get there even if you do identify as white/cis-gender/straight and male. This show is a refreshing treat from a gay voice of color that deserves the eyes of all perspectives.


by R. Eric Thomas

Directed by Marcus McQuirter

Austin Playhouse West Campus

405 W. 22nd Street

Austin, TX, 78705


March 03 - March 25, 2023

Photo Credit: Steve Rogers


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