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BWW Review: SHE A GEM at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: SHE A GEM at Kennedy Center
L-R Heather Gibson, Kashayna Johnson, and Alicia Grace in the Kennedy Center production of She A Gem. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

With all of the media options at their disposal today, creating theater pieces that will keep young people totally engaged is getting to be more and more of a challenge. Kennedy Center's Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) division's latest attempt at something fresh sometimes succeeds and sometimes doesn't. Most of the success in She A Gem can be attributed to the oh so fly direction of Paige Hernandez and her talented cast and design team. Whether or not the playwright Josh Wilder was up for the challenge is open to debate.

Wilder's script is set in South Philadelphia at Topaz's (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) foster home - who all of the girls just call Ms. T.. At present, three girls reside in the home - Krystin (Kashayna Johnson), Jaleesa (Heather Gibson), and Amber (Alicia Grace) - and even though they are not related, they consider themselves like sisters. They formed double-dutch team with Krystin as their captain. As they prepare for the neighborhood's block party, a new girl related to Ms. T's cousin arrives and throws things into turmoil. Symone (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) can double-dutch better than the trio and thinks she should be captain of the team. Did I mention she is pregnant?

There is another character that figures heavily into the story that I personally wanted to see as a live person and not just mentioned. The crazy old lady down the block, known as Ms. Mary, has a strong connection to one of the seen characters whether she knows it or not. She lives in her burned out house that somehow was the only one hit by lightning during a thunderstorm. Ms. T has been looking after her for many years.

Wilder's script does incorporate double-dutch, which you hardly ever see represented onstage. However, much of his dialogue feels more like it was written for an after school special. There are also several plot twists that make the show schmaltzy rather than genuinely emotionally engaging.

Wilder needs to bend down and kiss the ground his director Paige Hernandez walks on because her energetic staging - at least in my opinion - makes his script come off way better than it actually is.

Hernandez gets some wonderful performances out of her cast as well.

As Krystin, Kashayna Johnson commands the stage as the strong-willed teen looking to become a champion. Heather Gibson, as Jaleesa, has all the street smarts of a kid in the urban jungle of South Philly. As the kind-hearted Amber, Alicia Grace exudes tons of youthful energy throughout. You really feel for Moriamo Temidayo Akibu as Symone. She's had it incredibly rough and just wants to be accepted by the other girls. Aakhu TuahNera Freeman was a little tentative with her lines at my performance, but I still got the love Topaz (Ms. T.) has for all of the girls.

Debra Kim Sivigny's excellent set depicting the streets of South Philly is beautifully enhanced by lighting and projection designer Rob Siler's murals of the girls during their monologues.

Kenny Neal's sound and Sarah Woodham's costumes complete the visual and audible feast.

Double-dutch coach Ebony Ingram gets a big shout out for her work on this production because without it the show would be missing a substantial component.

Despite Hernandez and company's attempt to make She a Gem a sparkling piece of theatre, it ultimately comes off as a diamond in the rough.

Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.

She A Gem runs through February 24, 2019 in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center which is located at 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.

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