Review: Olney Theatre's THE JOY THAT CARRIES YOU a Touching Journey Towards Renewal

The Joy that Carries You plays through June 12 at the Mulitz-Gedelsky Theatre Lab.m

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It's always wonderful when a performer writes for the stage; their awareness of audience dynamic, the music of every scene, the potential for moments of great beauty, the ways of building a roller-coaster that is the stuff of great drama. But for the next month, audiences at the Olney Theatre Center will be treated to the collaboration of two accomplished performer/playwrights. And the results are unforgettable, in many ways.

"The Joy that Carries You" is a touching and touchingly thoughtful journey, one which many might recognize in their own. But Secka and Stoller also make this a celebration of the relationships which until (only) very recently were taboo. Thank goodness we're no longer at the stage where seeing two women choosing each other as life-partners is a shock; we can now see them as human beings. But we also know that relationships like this are still fraught with a unique form of anxiety, between the women themselves but especially with their families.

In true classical style, it is poetry that leads the way and guides us along the central character's journey-Alaia the aspiring poet, constantly writing in her journal, sharing with the audience (if not with her partner, Shiri) the highs and lows of her spiritual experience. In her opening invocation she talks about her search for joy, and she realizes that it can't be fake or just a one-off. For it to be real, joy must be hard-won. And it takes a personal tragedy in Alaia's family for her to realize that in order for her to reach the spiritual heights to which she aspires, she has to stop hiding from the world in the golden cocoon she and Shiri have fashioned for themselves. Each has to see the other's past as well as their present, in order to look towards the future together.

Billie Krishawn's Alaia is by turns assured and vulnerable, seemingly fully grounded but at the same time hiding vitally important parts of herself from her partner. Her Baptist upbringing, and her awareness of her mother's cultural conservatism, make it almost impossible for her to be reconciled with her family. Meanwhile, as Shiri, Dani Stoller (who is also co-playwright) gives us the manic, impulsive, judgmental person whose relationship with her past is likewise problematic-not once has she told Alaia about her Jewish upbringing, the litany of prayers, the Bat-Mitzvah. None of it has ever been mentioned.

And so the stage is set for the challenges ahead, as Alaia and Shiri navigate the treacherous waters of that all-American institution, Thanksgiving. Meeting your partner's parents for the first time is always a nerve-wracking business, but Shiri is especially nervous about her African-American, female partner meeting her Jewish (step-) mom and dad. The struggle just to get out the door and on the road is real; and the awkward welcome offered by Martin and Nancy (played here with charming urbanity by Michael Russotto and Susan Rome) has all the potential for crash-and-burn you might expect. But once she settles into the couch Alaia handles the awkward get-to-know-you questions, and the even more awkward attempts to reach out to her, with grace. Shiri's need to control every aspect of the evening turns out to be the problem, not the parents and certainly not Alaia.

As mentioned above, only a family tragedy can force Alaia to return to her own home-an event whose nature, sadly enough, doesn't need to be explained through any dialogue or exposition, because it remains so maddeningly familiar, every week if not every day, in our news feeds. Alaia's bother Zeke (Bru Ajueyitsi) comes to take Alaia home, and it is there, amid the present grief, that Alaia needs to confront her mother. The argument that ensues is riveting, passionate-and yet for all their disagreements, each seems capable of 'finding a way out of no way.'

As Alaia's mom, Lolita Marie captures a lifetime of anxiety, fear, and grief and delivers it with a forceful clarity that is a wonder to see. She's no saint, and she has her blind sides; but Secka and Stoller ensure there is room for Ma to grow, even at a time when many of us would just fold up. James J. Johnson, meanwhile, offers us a charming, accepting anchor to the family as Beau, Alaia's step-father, who knows when to moderate this mother-daughter dialogue and when to back out. Rounding out this family is Zeke (or Ezekiel, the biblical name you find in the program), the stay-at-home son whose charm and laid-back personality mask years of hurt; he has his own issues with Alaia, which must also be confronted.

One of the wonders of this show is Misha Kachman's and Alberto Segarra's scenic and lighting designs. We see an alley stage (two opposite banks of seats) with picture-frames hanging from the ceiling and installed along the walls, glowing with color and positively shining with pictures evoking the sometimes parallel pasts of both Jews and African Americans in the US. Kachman and Segarra make sure we are aware of these communities' generations of struggle and rejection, and through Alaia and Shiri we see the temptation each generation faces, to ditch your heritage and assimilate with a mainstream that views your origins with suspicion.

Can you ever run away from your own legs? Hardly. But sometimes it's just possible to be accepted for all of who you are.

Production Photo: Billie Krishawn as Alaia and Michael Russotto as Martin, in THE JOY THAT CARRIES YOU at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes, with one intermission.

The Joy that Carries You plays through June 12 at the Mulitz-Gedelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or log into: . .


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