BWW Reviews: WMGE, LLC and LeighzaLand Productions' FADE TO BLACK is Exhilarating and Deeply Thought-Provoking

BWW Reviews: WMGE, LLC and LeighzaLand Productions' FADE TO BLACK is Exhilarating and Deeply Thought-ProvokingLast night was the premiere of FADE TO BLACK, an innovative 10 minute play festival promoting and supporting original works created by African-American artists. This showcase is the creative brainchild of Denise O'Neal of WMGE, LLC and Leighza Walker of LeighzaLand Productions, and it is a true first for the Houston theater community. Thankfully, these extraordinary women have already placed FADE TO BLACK on next year's calendar with the intentions of creating an annual event that centers around encouraging and producing new works written by African-American Playwrights.

Everything about FADE TO BLACK is exhilarating. First and foremost it is wonderful to see an underrepresented group of artists given such a grand and well-deserved spotlight. Moreover, the festival is a contest. The audience is presented with ten finalists and given the opportunity to vote for which play they feel is the best. The winner will be chosen and awarded a $100 grand prize following the final performance on Saturday, June 15, 2013.

This year's festival opens with Michelle T. Johnson's A REBECCA BY ANY OTHER NAME IS STILL A BECKY, which was skillfully directed by Errol Anthony Wilks. The play is an interesting exploration of the implications of reverse racism, as an African-American woman chastises her brother for always dating white women. Erika R. Walton's Imani is fantastically realized, as is Ty Fisher's Jacob. Both actors brilliantly portray their roles.

Peter Anthony Field's BURDEN, directed by DaBrina Sandifer, is a compelling and gripping drama that explores the power of faith and our obligations to familial relationships. Kimberly Hicks is mesmerizing as April, delivering fantastically crafted and tangible emotions to the audience. As Derek, Gerald Guidry is stunningly conflicted and commits to a convincingly powerful performance.

VENUS AND MARS - DATE NIGHT is written by Angela Batravil and directed by Leighza Walker. This romantic comedy adroitly explores the ups and downs of modern relationships and misunderstandings between men and women. Danielle K. Bunch as Venus and Christopher Battle-Williams as Mars both utilize pristine timing and incredible comedic delivery, especially during the unison lines, to keep the audience chuckling and engaged in this short play.

Perhaps the most disturbing play of the evening is Rachel DuBose's LONELY HEARTS, directed by Tracy Wheat. Dave Osbie Sheperd miraculously portrays a character that seems innocent enough on the surface, making audiences laugh. Yet, he is entirely creepy and discomforting, keeping us glued to The Edge of our seats. My first thought is that this play is abundantly hysterical, but I am in a state of cognitive dissonance for feeling that way the material is so unnerving. Moreover, Melanie Burke's Marlene is shockingly naïve and easily manipulated. Both offer resplendent performances, making this work the evening's most memorable play.

Closing the first act is Eric C. Jones' AMERICAN RIFLE, which is directed by Yvonne Phillips-Dupree. This enjoyable drama is a bit overwrought, as it explores the Culture Clash between a privileged girl and a disadvantaged boy and the power of empathy induced compassion in the moments leading up to a major tragedy. Omar King Lewis commands the stage with his darkly disturbed Lance. Hannah Hubbard's Jodie Barber is adroitly out of touch with reality. Mike McDermott's Mr. Weiner is a perfect portrayal of a teacher than drones on and on.

The second act opens with Barbara and Carlton Moltte's LAST SUPPER, directed by Steve Carpentier. This touching drama takes place in the kitchen of a small Memphis restaurant that is looking forward to serving Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. As the women talk and prepare for this monumental meal, they explore many issues that still exist in American society. Wynelle Alexander as Lucille, Melanie Burke as Angie, Danielle K. Bush as Eva, Jasmine Thomas as Martha, and Sedric Keeler as Wendell all give strong performances in this rousing play.

Carol Roper's existential AIRPORT DINER, directed Errol Anthony Wilks, is my least favorite of the ten finalists. I found the dialogue to be awkwardly disjointed and the story to be unappealing. Ty Fisher creates a wondrous portrayal of paranoia with his Ty, but the writing loses the other three actors in its overarching premise of how do we know if we're conscious or unconscious, asleep or awake, dead or alive. Erin Robertson, Anita Darby, and Robert Rowley do the best they can with their assigned characters.

PORTAL, OR METAPHORICAL TRICYCLE, written by Kevin R. Free and directed by Harold J. Haynes, is a fascinating piece of live theatre that explores the power of the art form and what audiences both need and want from performance. The intriguingly meta social commentary devolves into a shouting match that confronts the issue of people outside of a community writing people in that community and the resounding miscommunications that can occur because of this. Jabari R. Collins as Darius, John Lazo as Borg, and Liz Rachelle as Tracey each in their own right deliver over-acted, scenery chewers that stir the audience whether we individually love them or hate them.

Timothy Eric Dickson directs Nate Jones & Tynesha Clark's A SUNNY DAY IN CHICAGO with powerful urgency. This is one play that I think could benefit from a longer treatment, as its ending feels too rushed. It tremendously explores the Culture Clash between modern youth and the older generation while intensely indicting the abhorrent drug and gang violence that is all too common in society. Dave Osbie Sheperd as Old Man Ray, Marcos Mena as Puerto Rican Joe, Omar King Lewis as Little Man, BranDon Morgan as Money, and Ave Moreno as Maria all do stellar jobs with their characters. The only drawback to this performance last night was the lack of sound effects in the final moments of the play that caused the audience to laugh when we should have been overcome with anguish.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY ATE MY LUNCH written by Alonzo D LaMont, Jr. and directed by S. Denise O'Neal is the final play in this year's series. It is an absorbing commentary on the power of "agenda" in American social understanding and the illogical ideals of victimhood. The power of this work lies in the question posed by Ty Fisher's Bartender, "What's your disadvantages?" Both BranDon Morgan as Professor and Ty Fisher as Bartender are superb in their roles.

Josh Baker's Lighting is simplistic, keeping the plays in realistic lighting that focuses audience's attentions more on the words and the actors. Larin Pascal does a great job with Sound, especially in choosing complimentary and entertaining music between the plays.

WMGE, LLC and LesighzaLand Productions' FADE TO BLACK is an astonishing, invigorating, and deeply thought-provoking evening of theatre. My wife and I debated several thematic issues and our own understandings of the deeper meanings of several works the whole way home. Furthermore, FADE TO BLACK is an important historical event in Houston's theater community. While every play may not be something that takes your breath away, I feel certain that people who don't see the production will regret missing it.

FADE TO BLACK only runs through June 15, 2013. To get tickets to the two remaining performances please visit http://www.mslilysgroove.com/FTB.html.

All images courtesy of S. Denise O'Neal.

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Promotional Image for FADE TO BLACK.


Christopher Battle-Williams and Danielle K. Bunch rehearse Angela Batravil's VENUS AND MARS - DATE NIGHT.


Yvonne Phillips-Dupree directs Omar King Lewis and Hannah Hubbard in Eric C. Jones' AMERICAN RIFLE.


Wynelle Alexander, Jasmine Thomas, Melanie Burke, Danielle Kristen Bunch and Michael Patterson rehearse Barbara & Carlton Molette's LAST SUPPER.


Dave Osbie Sheperd, Marco Mena, Omar King Lewis rehearse Nate Jones & Tynesha Clark's A SUNNY DAY IN CHICAGO.


BranDon Morgan and Ty Fisher rehearse Alonzo D. LaMont, Jr.'s CULTRAL DIVERSITY ATE MY LUNCH.

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