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Review: Cynthia Harris' THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY Is A Universal Tale of Love and Inspiration

The Playwright Directs Her Own Script in World Premiere Production from Actors Bridge Ensemble

Review: Cynthia Harris' THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY Is A Universal Tale of Love and Inspiration
Teacora Sherrill, Nicole Mason, Destinee Monet, Rachel Agee and Lisa Yolanda Treece

In much the same way that a piece of evocative music can suddenly whisk you away to another time and place, there are moments in Cynthia Harris' beautifully written The Calling Is In The Body that can take one just as swiftly to the Nashville of the early 1990s. Almost imperceptibly, Harris' heartfelt reminiscence - a tribute styled as a "choreopoem" - of a young woman who inspired her to believe in herself and to aspire to more than she might have believed possible at the time, becomes a universal treatise on how every life has meaning far beyond any expectation.

If it were indeed the early 1990s and we were revisiting my life then, it would be set to a score that includes "On and On and On" by ABBA, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Diana Ross and "Tainted Love" by the Eurythmics - songs that aren't necessarily from those years, but songs which nonetheless define that era for me and reverberate within my heart from too many nights spent dancing at Warehouse 28 or at The Chute Complex, where most of lgbtq+ Nashville gathered for a sense of community and belonging and where we first encountered the specter of HIV/AIDS in our community. As editor of Dare (which later became Query), "Tennessee's Lesbian and Gay Newsweekly" I wrote far too many stories about this scourge on our community that some said was deserved while we mourned the loss of lovers and other spirits who had made our lives far more interesting and certainly more colorful than we knew what to make of it at the time.

In those heady early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as everyone grappled with coming to terms with a disease that had rendered making love (which is not how my younger self would have termed it, truth be told), which I had always thought of as a revolutionary act against the heteronormative expectations of society had instead become a potentially lethal act that would ultimately rob our lives of a whole generation of vibrant, creative and essential human beings.

Review: Cynthia Harris' THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY Is A Universal Tale of Love and Inspiration
Destinee Monet and Lisa Yolanda Treece

Thus, it was with trepidation that I approached opening night of Cynthia Harris' The Calling Is In The Body, fearful that its all-woman cast wouldn't even mention people like me and would instead leave my band of brothers behind for other writers to consider (which, in and of itself, is remarkably selfish and self-centered of me - it's people like the women in this show who have largely been ignored in the canon of theatrical works about HIV/AIDS). How lucky am I that my faith in Harris and her cadre of creative souls and their nurturing producing entity Actors Bridge Ensemble that I would be compelled forward to opening night?

For it was there in the sold-out intimacy of Darkhorse Theater that I watched a story being told of a driven and dynamic young woman named Deidre Davenport, whose promising life was cut short by the same scourge that depleted my own family. And, while my emotions still seem right on the surface of my being even as I write days after that eventful evening known as opening night, I can report that the story of The Calling Is In The Body is a universal one, which speaks profoundly of incalculable loss that has either the power to consume us or, conversely or perhaps coincidentally, to inspire us.

As with any memoir, Harris' The Calling Is In The Body is highly personal and reflective of her own experiences and those of Deirdre Davenport, the aforementioned young woman who changed her life during a chance encounter when Harris was still in high school. Their stories - Cynthia's, Deidre's, Bev's, Mary's and Cynthia's beloved grandmother's - contained therein are told with such conviction, authenticity and truth, that they could be yours, mine or anyone fortunate enough to be among the audience of this Actors Bridge Ensemble production now onstage through Sunday, August 14, at Darkhorse Theater.

Directed by Harris from her own enlightening, even luminous, script, and featuring a five-person cast of impressive talents who bring a whole world of people and events to life during the scant ninety minutes of playing time, The Calling Is In The Body exemplifies the director/playwright's ability to tell an engaging, thoroughly involving, story that will remain in your heart and mind for long after you leave the theater. In her remarks before curtain on opening night, Harris traced the play's beginnings to 2014. If that is indeed the case (and we have no reason not to believe her), she used every precious moment of time to craft a work of art so vivid and so moving that you cannot help but be changed by the experience of being in the same room.

Under the leadership of producing artistic director Vali Forrister - to whom Harris expresses an equally heartfelt sense of gratitude in the "body" of her creation - Actors Bridge has forged an identity in the Nashville theater community for bringing to light theater that is guaranteed to provoke thought and challenge every preconceived notion you might have about just about anything under the sun. In the process, your life is changed - even if just a little, depending upon your ability to consider a wide range of possibilities - and Cynthia Harris is more than happy, I suspect, to have imparted such an effect upon your life while generously sharing about hers.

When she was a student at Nashville's Hume-Fogg High School, Harris met Deidre Davenport (Destinee Monet is perfectly cast as the intelligent, beautiful and talented, consummately ambitious role model that was - no, is - Deidre), then a counselor for a local organization that allowed her the unique opportunity to speak with young people about her life as a young, black, straight woman who had been diagnosed with HIV.

Review: Cynthia Harris' THE CALLING IS IN THE BODY Is A Universal Tale of Love and Inspiration
Destinee Monet and Teacora Sherrill

It was during that time that she first met Bev, a nurse practitioner in Nashville who had been on the front lines of HIV/AIDS in this region from the very beginning. And it was through Bev (brilliantly brought to life onstage by Rachel Agee, one of the region's most beloved actors), who happens to be the sister-in-law of Vali Forrister, that Cynthia was able to come full circle in her story with Deidre and to discover what had happened to her when time and distance had separated the two friends, the mentor and her protégé. It is through Bev's recounting of the history of HIV/AIDS in Nashville that every community impacted by the pandemic is brought into the story and it is through the litany of names, places and events that my sense of inclusion, the universality of Deidre's and Cynthia's stories, first begins to resonate.

As she related her story with her audiences - whether they be high school students like Cynthia (played here by an incandescent Teacora Sherrill) or a recovering drug addict like the sassy and fashionable Ms. Mary (portrayed by the equally fiery and flashy Nicole Mason) - Deidre was able to overcome their misconceptions about what someone in her position should look like or act like. Rather, she became the face of a new generation for those she met, leading them to new heights of knowledge and self-realization that continue to be felt today.

As a young Mississippi schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming a doctor and she was loved and cherished by a family led by its matriarch, her devoted grandmother (played here with a depth of feeling that will overwhelm you with warmth by Lisa Yolanda Treece), Deidre made her way to Nashville to study at Tennessee State University and it was here that she fell in love, planned to get married and decided to have sex with her boyfriend - a natural progression that resulted in her diagnosis. Throughout the course of the play, Deidre says she wants "to become a doctor and to help people." And while her life was cut far too short and before she met her goal, her destiny nonetheless remains intact - thanks in large part to the women represented by The Calling Is In The Body - and she continues to help people whom she never met.

By refusing to accept the harsh and hurtful words of the naysayers in the community, while ultimately striving to make a difference in the world around her, the resourceful girl became the forthright and determined woman whose impact on more lives than she could have ever fathomed - and with Harris' sublime remembrance of her vitality, of her optimism and of her love - her legacy is renewed and will be for much time to come.

Harris' direction of her script results in a fluidity of the storytelling so central to The Calling Is In The Body that is perfect for the non-linear aspect of the work. Each scene transitions nicely into the next and the resulting "show" gives access to the play by every audience member. Perhaps what is most remarkable about The Calling Is In The Body is how confident and self-assured this production feels; there is no sense that this is the work of fledgling playwright, saying "look at me and what I've done." Instead, one becomes a part of what transpires onstage and it seems natural and unaffected.

Richard Davis' artistic lighting design provides the perfect illumination of the tale enacted on the stunningly beautiful magnolia blossom scenic design provided by Paul Gatrell, and Denese Rene Evans clothes her actors in pitch-perfect costumes that allow each to more elegantly and easily take on the characters she is playing. Gabrielle Saliba's movement direction allows Harris' staging to be more fully articulated and to achieve her expressive goals.

The Calling Is In The Body. Written and directed by Cynthia Harris. Produced by Vali Forrister for Actors Bridge Ensemble. Movement direction by Gabrielle Saliba. Stage managed by Kat Tierney Smith. Presented at Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through August 14. For details, go to www.actorsbridge.org. Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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