BWW Review: HUMAN RITES Broadens Your Perceptions at Phoenix Theater
Academia. Culture. Anthropology. In-depth study. Research. Data collection. These hardly seem the buzz words for an impactful and insightful play, yet each of those weighty words holds sway in HUMAN RITES, which is currently playing at Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.
However, I have saved the best key phrase for last because this powerhouse play centers on two pivotal words: female circumcision. Or is it female genital mutilation? That is the heated and impassioned debate sparked in the close office of Michaela Richards, played by Milicent Wright. This debate unfolds in a riveting fashion that is both jarring and eye-opening as only three characters never cease discussing its many twists, turns, and viewpoints.
It is very clear that the actors in this production made a study of the people they portrayed, for which I am very grateful. As an audience member, you have to watch these individuals talking for 90 straight minutes. And yet, I was never once tempted to look at the clock because I felt like the unwitting scientist who puts his or her subject of study under a microscope and is caught off guard by what awaits.
The first commanding presence on whom I would like to focus is Michaela Richards, the African American dean of a college who lights the fire for this contentious debate. If I were to give her character a catchphrase, it would be "no good deed goes unpunished." She uses her quick wit and scathing observation to turn others' words on their heads and question the subtext behind the words and gestures of her counterparts on stage. This façade, however, can show cracks when the veneer of argument is whittled down by fact and equally sage argument. Her character, and Milicent Wright's portrayal, is fascinating for this unique admixture of fearless and educated confidence and an innate vulnerability not readily revealed.
Dr. Richards uses her intellect and sheer bravado to confront her underling, the professor Alan Friedman, portrayed by Rob Johansen. It quickly becomes apparent that not all is what it seems between Alan and Michaela, and it is perhaps this underlying current which sparks these otherwise esteemed academics into a raucous battle. Alan, in opposition to Michaela, is not what one would call a fearlessly confident man. Instead, he comes across as a somewhat reserved academic who has found a rather peculiar passion in studying African female circumcision. However, what makes him an equally formidable force to the dean is his unswaying belief in his study and what it uncovered. He is undeterred by Michaela's insistence that his study is inherently flawed and its results entirely refutable. With both passion and an unexpected intensity, Rob Johansen shows how his character is more than what he appears when he rises to meet Michaela head-on.
Finally, it is impossible to forget the impassioned performance of Paeton Chavis as Lydia Namandu. Although she spent significantly less time on stage than her fellow players, her words resonated with me long after my departure. She is the final cog in the complex workings of the debate begun by Michaela and Alan since she seems to be a solution for both of them: she is a graduate student from Sierra Leone, an area which Alan researched when finding data for his study. Paeton Chavis ensured that Lydia became a tour de force in spite of her youth, stature, and lack of academic title. Lydia shows the supposedly "enlightened" and "educated" dean and professor the many holes in their perceived superiority. It is she who brings every high-brow phrase and concept crashing down on the heads of the collegiate hierarchy represented by Michaela and Alan.
HUMAN RITES is a fast-paced and riveting invitation to see how deeply perception dictates our reality. Be prepared to have your own eyes opened, your own pre-conceived notions debunked, and your head left spinning with some inevitable questions: who would I be in this debate? And did I win?
Upon entering the theater to watch HUMAN RITES, I was told to go to the bathroom before watching the show - just a friendly heads up for those who see the show. The reason? This show is 90 minutes, no intermission, and zero breaks between scenes. As an avid theatergoer, this is definitely not something I am accustomed to, but I brushed it off as an artistic choice by the director. I was most definitely not prepared for what was to come after. I would have to admit that I have never experienced a play "flow" like it did.
With the flow of HUMAN RITES never stopping and considering the deep, gritty content of the show, I was exhausted as just an audience member by the time it finished. The show covers the cultural view of the practice of female circumcision in explicit detail, so be aware of that before coming in. The constant banter of the actors makes it feel like you are in the room, taking side with the mere three actors.
Not only was I greatly impressed by the acting, but also the sheer stamina it takes to perform this show by Seth Rozin is beyond amazing. Zero stops, zero scene changes, zero costume changes, and pure emotion make this show different than any I have ever seen, which made it all the more impressive.
Along with the flow of HUMAN RITES, the scenery didn't help (in the best way possible) with the uncomfortable-ness of the content material and pace, which made the show even more amazing to me. The intimacy of the seating makes you feel as if you are a part of the controversy, content, and conversation. It was brilliantly designed.
Overall, I would put this easily in the top 5 shows I have ever seen, and I highly recommend it. I would put a 16+ age range on it, though. It shows at Phoenix Theatre through August 14th.