'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family

Tennessee Playwrights Studio Leads Post-Pandemic Creative Renaissance in Nashville

By: Jul. 13, 2023
'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
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Post-pandemic Nashville theater audiences have witnessed a groundswell of creativity as local companies have made the production of original works part of their programming initiatives. While the result might best be described as hit-or-miss depending on perspective, one company’s efforts have been constant, abiding and transformative. Tennessee Playwrights Studio, co-founded by Molly Breen and Kenley Smith, has led this creative renaissance since its very beginnings and over the past several years has been responsible for nurturing the talents of a wide array of artists. We could not be more grateful to TPS and its founders for everything they’ve accomplished; it is truly noteworthy.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
Breanna Celeste Finley and Angela Martin

Which brings us to the latest from Tennessee Playwrights Studio – and its founding playwright, the redoubtable Mr. Smith – which proves to be one of the most engaging and thought-provoking plays we’ve seen in years: Fan Me With A Brick, directed by Shawn Whitsell and starring an impressive ensemble of local actors led by a startling and transformative lead performance by DaJuana Hammonds, that is onstage at the city’s iconic Darkhorse Theater through July 22.

Steeped in years of tireless research by Victoria Yalewa Sparrowhawk Ferguson, whose very existence provides the story’s stunning denouement, Fan Me With A Brick is remarkable: frank, authentic and fascinating, which comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s been lucky enough to see any of the original plays by Smith in seasons past. His latest work – a very specific tale with its beginnings in the Jim Crow-era South and its heartfelt and stirring conclusion that is certain to have an impact on audiences – is extraordinarily vivid, even shocking and unique, and yet somehow it’s quite possibly the most universal of tales from the playwright that we have encountered.

No mere synopsis can do credit to the play’s impact. The intimate life events, the familiar yet original and colorful characters and the dramatic arc of the stories contained in the script seemingly defy description. It really is a case of something that must be seen for oneself in order to be believed and appreciated, although there is something about every word uttered, every moment conveyed and every scene performed that rings true and somehow personal to one’s own experience. More importantly, perhaps, Fan Me With A Brick speaks so eloquently of a particular time and a specific place in one family’s history that it is certain to inspire investigation into one’s own familial heritage and generational lineage.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
Kinston Smith, Leslie Hammonds, Myah Jackson,
Tanya Crandall Anderson and Josh Kiev

Directed by Shawn Whitsell, an agent of change who has helped to define and to champion diversity, equity and inclusion in a heretofore often-segregated theater community, Smith’s characters are brought to life by an estimable group of actors that features an exciting blend of faces both new and familiar who together create a memorable work that radiates intelligence and pays homage to the very real people at the center of the plot.

When the fictionalized Victoria, played with charm and grit by Kysa Siovan, asks her mother to provide more memories and details for the family’s history, a plot is set in motion that takes audiences on a time-bending and circuitous route to find the truth at the center of this uniquely American tale, one which will reverberate in every audience member’s heart for long after the play’s two-and-a-half hours onstage (encompassing almost 70 years in the real world). Catherine (Victoria’s loving and sometimes imperious mother) is played to absolute perfection by DaJuana Hammonds, who miraculously and seamlessly transforms into a 70-year-old woman with such vibrance and authenticity that we can scarcely recall another performance like hers in years! In a particularly inspired bit of theatrical wizardry, Whitsell has cast Hammonds’ daughter Leslie Hammonds as both “little” Catherine and Victoria, as well, which allows the young actress to effectively showcase her already noteworthy talents to further illuminate the soul-stirring themes of family connection that provide the heart for this deeply affecting play.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
DaJuana Hammonds and Kysa Siovan

Although Catherine is reticent to recall many of the details in her life, she somewhat grudgingly concedes to her daughter’s cajoling and offers up enough facts to set Victoria on her journey of self-discovery – which we come to find out later is due to her own need to better understand horrific events from her own childhood. Each audience member is drawn ever deeper into the tale as it is revealed, oftentimes blurring timelines and offering insights into the realities of America from the 1910s all the way up to the 1980s (and which, disappointingly, continues to this very day).

Through Smith’s command of language and his uncanny ability to create a sense of time and place in the process, all attention is focused on the heartrending tale of Catherine’s birth and troubled life throughout her 70-some years, her forced separation from her high-strung but devoted mother, and the tragedy that defines the lives of all members of the extended family set against the backdrop of bias, prejudice and virulent racism that symbolizes the long-gestating inequities of American life.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
Brianna Celeste Finley and Tony Insignares

Whitsell does a fine job in setting the stage for this multi-generational story to be told so evocatively. From the very first moments, characters stand languidly against the walls of E. Roy Lee’s towering edifice (nicely lighted by designer Happy Allen) that represents the decaying South, the white Ionic columns effectively providing a visual cue for the memories that are sure to follow.

Among these spirits/specters from Catherine’s early life, we are introduced to her flighty and flirtatious mother Phoebe, played with a spirited sense of individualism and reckless abandon by Myah Jackson; siblings James and Mary (J.R. Knowles and Tanya Crandall Anderson), scions of the “comfortable” white family of landowners whose “big, white house” provides the source of fantasy and conjecture for the dirt-poor Brown family; “Brother,” Catherine’s older sibling (played by Kinston Smith) whose name she never knew; and the abusive and nefarious Liza (brought to life with fiery zeal by Angela Martin), who “steals away” Catherine with near-melodramatic ferocity that sets Phoebe on the road to ruin. And you’ll meet the “County Man,” the tax accessor (Josh Kiev creates an indelible impression) who first labels Catherine as “mulatto” on county tax rolls, a designation that sets her even further apart.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
In front: Kysa Siovan, DaJuana Hammonds
and Ethan H. Jones

Later, as we get to know “Young Catherine,” a forthright, hardworking and beautiful young woman played by Briana Celeste Finley, we learn about her troubled marriage to John Persinger (Tony Insignares makes a welcome return to the stage with his astonishing portrayal of Victoria’s father), whose native American blood adds another facet to the already shocking and cavalier prejudice these characters must endure in an unjust world. Finally, Ethan H. Jones delivers a performance, both vitally important and warmly portrayed, as Joseph Church, a character from Catherine’s past to whom she is re-introduced by Victoria.

DaJuana Hammonds and Kysa Siovan, who are together throughout this emotionally charged journey of redemption and recognition, serve as guides for the audience as they enter into the sometimes confusing and confounding world of their shared stories. Together, the two women present a portrait of mother and daughter unlike any you may have seen onstage – authentic, combative, loyal and loving.

'Heartbreaking, breathtaking and powerful': Kenley Smith's FAN ME WITH A BRICK Provides a Fascinating Portrait of an American Family
Kysa Siovan and DaJuana Hammonds

By the final curtain, you are likely to be emotionally drained by what you have witnessed, yet tremendously heartened by the overwhelming and pervasive presence of love that radiates from the heart of Victoria Yalewa Sparrowhawk Ferguson’s real-life story. Heartbreaking though it may be, this story will take your breath away and, more to the point, will make you think about the stories hidden away in your own family tree.

Fan Me With A Brick. By Kenley Smith. Original research by V. Yalewa Sparrowhawk Ferguson. Directed by Shawn Whitsell. Stage managed by LaTia L. Lewis. Presented by Tennessee Playwrights Studio at The Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through July 22. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission). For tickets and/or more information, go to www.tnplaywrights.org.

photos by Jima Akhenjah


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