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Review: THE SUBURBS at Thrown Stone

a roving production

Review: THE SUBURBS at Thrown Stone

On Saturday, August 28, 2021, I saw THE SUBURBS, a three segment show, each segment written by a different writer, including Catherine Yu, Tony Meneses, and Phanésia Pharel, respectively. All three stories are directed by Kholoud Sawaf. With THE SUBURBS, Thrown Stone has presented a world premiere, which furthermore is a roving production set in three different venues, which in sequence include Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and West Lane Inn.

All three venues are outdoors and require patrons to bring their own chairs. Also, there is some walking between venues, while carrying your chairs, so please be prepared, as distances that seem relatively short while driving can seem longer when walking. Furthermore, your relative location to the stage from venue to venue is determined by when you arrive and where you put your chairs at each venue, so strategize accordingly.

The first of the three stories is centered on the debate of whether Latin should still be a part of the Ridgefield school curriculum. Ian Michael Minh plays Federico, the central character who wants to preserve Latin, believing it to be a way to properly understand the classics. Federico is countered by Clarisse, portrayed by Bridget Ann White, and Bob, portrayed by Will Jeffries. While all three cast members perform their roles excellently, I didn't like any of the characters. I found each one to be coming from a place of bigotry, but Bob being the only one whose overt bigotry was clearly written to be the intended tone of the character. Clarisse was annoying in the way she kept interrupting others with her own sense of self-importance. Federico displays the type of bigotry that is sadly accepted, even glamorized and mistaken for righteousness in modern America's mainstream media. He uses the inflammatory term "whiteness," in the context that it not only exists, but that it should be frowned upon. If any of these characters was seeking my vote, none of them would get it.

The second of the three stories is set in the future, a future in which cigarettes have become illegal. There is a party in Ridgefield that is being catered, a story that focuses on the caterers who are feeling overworked and underappreciated, many of whom commute from quite a distance to work that job to get the money to pay their bills. While some of the caterers make an extremely valid complaint that some of the guests at the party were hands-on with them, against their will, the caterers' general unfavorable view towards those Ridgefield residents whose party they are catering seems to be rooted in envy of the wealth of the Ridgefield residents, yet the show masquerades that envy with a tone that the caterers were justified in looking down on the people of Ridgefield, over their wealth, as if it is justifiable to negatively stereotype the people who live in a wealthy town. Even though I found the attitudes of these characters to be off-putting, I found that the acting was excellent by all six young cast members involved in this story. These cast members include Nedra Snipes, Justise Hayward, Maya Carter, Ian Michael Mihn, Bridget Ann White, and Nell Kessler.

The third of the three stories is by far the best with the deepest and most thought-provoking storyline and character arcs. It has spiritual depth and a valid point to make. It avoids profanity, stereotypes, and inflammatory words. The writer, Phanésia Pharel, brilliantly blends history, spirituality, and creativity in a way that emotionally moves the audience, unites people from different walks of life, and entertains. While the story is fictional, it is rooted in true Ridgefield history, history that sadly, many of us in Ridgefield may not have known about. Led by Tenisi Davis and Nedra Snipes as historic married couple Uncle Ned and Aunt Betsey Armstrong, respectively, the acting of this entire cast is phenomenal and even features acapella singing by Nedra Snipes who has an amazing singing voice that resonates heartfelt emotion. The stage chemistry and dynamics between Tenisi Davis and Nedra Snipes is believable and moving. Their facial expressions and mannerisms are authentic and draw the audience in to their feelings.

To provide some historical background to anyone who is not familiar with Ned and Betsey Armstrong, a very important part of Ridgefield history is that Ridgefield had a station on the Underground Railroad. Ned and Betsey Armstrong helped shelter runaway slaves as the operators of this station in a Ridgefield location that today is still known as Ned's Mountain. While, to their credit, they did an excellent job keeping their operation secret from those who would have tried to shut it down, it unfortunately also remained largely secret from historians. It is unclear, historically, whether the Armstrongs ever technically owned the land, but what is clear is that the land is not presently owned by any of their descendants, nor is it being preserved as a historical sight. As of today, August 28, 2021, it is presently on the market.

The story is set in Ridgefield, in the modern day. Marem, the head of the zoning board, is wonderfully portrayed by Will Jeffries who shows in this third story what a highly talented actor he is, when performing a well written role. Marem is visited by the resurrected lives of Ned and Betsey, who don't understand how or why they are suddenly alive, again, but accept that "God makes no mistakes." Marem is excited by the potential money that could come from the sale of Ned's Mountain, but Ned insists that the land should be preserved in the historical context that it once existed, or at least maintain historical integrity in the context of being used to benefit people in need, today. Marem, however, is more interested in the money. Ned, a Christian preacher, warns Marem of the spiritual implications of Marem's backwards attitude of wanting to constantly gain wealth. Ned's words are likely influenced by the Biblical passage found in Luke 12:16-21, but they neither directly reference it nor quote it verbatim.

Marem is taken to a scene from the past. It is in this scene that Bridget Ann White plays my favorite of her three characters, further showing her acting talents in the role of Joanna, a white woman (I believe fictional) whose family also worked alongside the Armstrongs, helping to house escaped slaves. Joanna mentions a story of an escaped female slave's fear that Joanna's son was going to rape her after he gave her food. While Joanna could have taken the attitude of outrage that this person who they were helping would dare think such a horrifying thought about her son, she instead, to her credit, felt a strong sense of sorrow and sympathy for this person, over what she must have likely witnessed or experienced in the past. I found this to be a powerful positive example of the right attitude to take when we are feared or hated, without having personally done anything to provoke those feelings. Rather than taking it personally with offended outrage, we should consider why this person may feel or think that way, and strive to lovingly debunk whatever negative stereotype that person's experiences have influenced him or her to unjustly feel towards us.

Maya Carter and Justise Hayward also enhance this third story with cameos as passengers.

Finding themselves alive again, Ned wants to continue the fight to make this world a better place for all people, while Betsey instead wants to dance and enjoy this life that they now have, again. This leads to an argument between them.

Will they resolve their argument? Will Marem have a change of heart, after Ned's point is demonstrated to him in a historical context? Come to the show to find out!

I highly recommend the third story of THE SUBURBS to mature audiences. I feel like the third story of this show is also a call to action. While I am pleased to learn that Ridgefield was part of the Underground Railroad, I also feel moved to raise awareness of this important part of Ridgefield's history, most importantly to proactively see what can be done to preserve Ned's Mountain in a way that truly honors its historical significance. If, possibly, people of good will in Ridgefield and beyond can unite together to raise money to collectively buy the land, with a central plan for it being used to preserve the historical context of helping those in need, then perhaps that can become a reality. If someone knows a multi-millionaire who would be willing to buy the land and use it for that purpose, that could be another way to help those in need, while simultaneously preserving history.

THE SUBURBS is scheduled to continue to run through September 12, 2021. For times and tickets, please go to https://thrownstone.org/events/.




From This Author - Sean Fallon


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