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Review: RAGE Rebels By Telling Stories Untold

Janelle Gray's RAGE will be at Wyly Studio Theatre from March 31-April 9.

Review: RAGE Rebels By Telling Stories Untold

Storytelling is one of the most meaningful parts of the human experience; it's something we do each day. We do it so often that we tend to lose track of the stories we are seeking, sharing, and supporting. RAGE, written by Janelle Gray and directed by Tiana Kaye Blair, makes that impossible. This one-act play tells the stories of ten Black women and their courageous rebellions throughout history, but it doesn't stop there. These fictional characters tell truthful stories that take place in the recent past and present day, too, making it impossible for the audience to dismiss these experiences with the common notion of "that doesn't happen anymore."

Entering the Wyly Studio Theatre was an experience. There was a small waiting area with plenty of standing and seating room, beverages for purchase, and a small table displaying Janelle Gray's works. This space is perfect for pre-performance excitement and post-performance debriefing. When entering the performance space, I could immediately feel the energy buzzing in the intimate setting. There were bleachers facing the set and a few rows of chairs sitting on ground level, close enough to see every facial expression and drop of sweat on the performers' faces. When Wyly Studio Theatre is full, which it was because it was opening night (and the world premier!) of RAGE, you'll need to snag a seat wherever you can find one. This dimly lit, comfortably compact space created the perfect atmosphere for the performance. It felt like we were about to learn someone's secrets or take a peek into a past that we have been taught to forget, which was exactly what we were about to do.

There were four panels standing tall on the stage. These panels (credit to Stage Manager/Props Designer, Ruby Pullum, and Set Designer, Johnny Eppes) were impressively integrated throughout the performance, moving around to convey new settings, and shielding cast members as their voices filled the space, but for now, they were stationary barriers. Behind them were various costumes, designed by Bruce R. Coleman, that were clearly visible to the audience. It was interesting to examine the articles of clothing as we waited for the show to begin. I couldn't help but think to myself, who am I about to meet? Suddenly, the lights were off, and we could hear footsteps on stage. We sat in silence for what felt like a while until a voice spoke over a loudspeaker. The voice shared the names of the women to whom Janelle Gray is dedicating the show, all of them being her family members. (She shared this in the group discussion after the performance.)

As the performance began, just before the action of Scene 1 started, we heard voices before seeing bodies. They started soft and became louder and more fierce until we met our first character, Atsila Tolbert, played by Tharmella Nyahoza. This character, a student in present day America, acted as the catalyst for the performance. Her passionate class presentation, in which she had to form a "hypothesis," was her relentless act of rebellion. She followed her teacher's instructions and spoke about hypothesizing, but not in the way one might think. Nyahoza's raw portrayal of a smart, motivated, Black, female student was jaw-dropping. In just those few moments the audience was captivated and eager for more. Immediately it became clear what we were about to see in this powerful performance of RAGE-questions would be asked, stories would be told, and rebellion of all forms would be celebrated.

Throughout the performance, we were transported to various years in history-1842, 1863, 1900-1906, 1946, 1949, 1988, 2003, 2013, and present day. This was done through the use of projection. When the scene would shift to a new time, the year and name of the scene projected on the wall behind the stage. The Light and Sound Designer, Jack Earl Piland, made it possible for the audience to visit these ten spectacular women in the midst of monumental moments in their lives.

After a few instances of time travel, we landed in Scene 3 of the performance where a group of four women were sitting around a table playing cards. It didn't take long for this social gathering to become a discussion about the nationwide streetcar boycotts. This moment struck me as uniquely intimate; it was as if we were sitting at the table with them listening to their honest opinions, hopes, and fears. A conversation like this, four Black women sharing their hearts behind closed doors, is a form of rebellion I won't pretend to understand, but it was incredible to witness. Alongside this courageous rebellion was friendship and joy, made evident by the women singing and dancing around the kitchen. This scene was beautiful and unforgettable.

There were many portrayals of dependence and friendship throughout the performance, but one was exceptionally unique-Frances Clark and Esther James. These two women have an honest friendship but a nuanced one. Victoria Angelina Cruz did a beautiful job portraying Clark and her distress as she struggles with feeling trapped in a world that isn't her own. Her counterpart, Jazzay Jabbar, perfectly played the role of a concerned, yet frustrated friend, Esther James, who is trying to make sense of her friend's sorrows while coping with her own unfair status in society. What was most impressive was how this scene was performed in two parts. First, Cruz's Clark verbalized her sadness and confusion, while her counterpart was present but only nonverbally reacting. Then, they switched. Jabbar's James was the one speaking, trying to support her friend while sharing her worries and disappointments. This inventive portrayal of their friendship allowed the audience to focus on each character's story individually, and it highlighted how these two friends were struggling to connect and understand each other due to the differences in their situations. This was an impressive, artistic way to depict the disconnect between Frances Clark and Esther James.

Although every moment in this performance is worth mentioning, there are two monologues that must be spotlighted-Catherine Whiteman, playing Evelyn Walker, and Natasha Wells, playing Kyla Myles. Both of these characters use their voices as their means of rebellion. In Scene 6, Evelyn Walker grieves as she attends the wake of her close friend and verbally expresses her painfully honest feelings. Whiteman's portrayal of these heartbreaking moments was incredibly moving, and it forced the audience to hear a perspective that is rarely acknowledged. This scene was powerful yet private, reinforcing the idea that rebellion doesn't have a uniform definition. The final scene of the play, performed by Natasha Wells, was powerful in a different was LOUD. Wells's character, Kyla Myles, is ready to use her voice and has no intention of being stopped. She relentlessly speaks her truths, one after the other, making it clear that she is an unstoppable force. Yes, this character is unbreakable, but so is Natasha Wells. She gave a perfect performance. In fact, I'm not so sure it was a performance. She looked to believe every single word her character said. As her passion, or "Black Woman's Rage" intensified, the lights brightened behind her, almost to the point that they were blinding. The power of this moment was tangible in the room, and Natasha Wells made that possible.

All five women in this production are incredibly talented. They seamlessly shifted between roles, each of them playing at least three different characters. Not only did they act, but they sang beautifully, often singing notes that resembled spiritual songs. Their acting, speaking, and layers of singing helped create the atmosphere of each scene and convey the stories of these ten Black women that deserve to be heard.

RAGE tells the stories that we should be seeking, sharing, and supporting. The experiences of these ten Black women are the experiences of Black women everywhere, in the past and right now, and they should be known. This performance is one that can't be missed. It provides an opportunity to witness moments in history that are too often forgotten, and it forces the audience to celebrate the many different ways Black women have been rebelling for centuries. Go see RAGE to be in awe of the acting, to learn, and to celebrate the power and importance of storytelling, but most of all, go see RAGE to rebel.


Wyly Studio Theatre March 31-April 9. Purchase tickets through the AT&T Performing Arts Center website. Run time 60-70 minutes. More information about the play's content can be found in the RAGE History Breakdown.

Photo Credit: AT&T Performing Arts Center

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