Review: Essential Theatre's DISSONANCE An Essential Conversation About What Divides Us

Experience the Emotional Journey of Two Friends Across the Racial Divide

By: Jun. 02, 2023
Review: Essential Theatre's DISSONANCE An Essential Conversation About What Divides Us

This past Wednesday night, waiting for Essential Theatre’s new show to begin, I started scrolling through my news feed; how telling, what I quickly discovered.  The play, “Dissonance,” is dedicated to the murder of George Floyd and the unbegun conversation surrounding that event.  But because of what I saw on my feed, just before curtain, I need to begin with another name which sadly needs to be added to an already too-long list:

Cyrus Carmack-Belton

A 14-year-old, young, male, and black, shot in the back while he was running away from a store owner.  The reason?  He was suspected of shoplifting.  Cyrus didn’t steal a thing, but the suspicion was all that was needed for the store owner to chase him and gun him down.  In the back.  While the young man was running away from him.

The store owner, who had been subject to harassment and robberies for years, has now been charged with murder; perhaps he had simply snapped, who knows.   But what’s telling—and perhaps because this is South Carolina we’re talking about—the Sheriff insists it was not a bias-related incident.  Apparently, shooting young black men in the back, for a crime they did not commit, is so routine in his county that it’s regarded as perfectly normal.

I mention this young man’s death because even as mere bystanders, even as mere theatre-goers, there is so much more we can do.  But we must give ourselves permission to seek each other out, to break bread, to speak openly, to listen to each other actively; and above all else, we need to be willing to stand corrected.  We need to give ourselves and each other permission to screw up, to say the wrong thing, so that the people we are with can correct our misimpressions, and we can correct for biases we didn’t even know we had.

It is our desperate need for mutual learning, and respect, that drives ­­­Marci J. Duncan’s new play, “Dissonance.”  Performed, and developed in concert with, actress Kerry Sandel, currently playing in Washington’s Anacostia Arts Center as part of its well-deserved national tour, “Dissonance” is a heart-warming, gut-wrenching, soul-deep experience that can open a lot of eyes and, more importantly, a lot of hearts.  The play, produced through Essential Theatre's "Women's Works" Program, is ably directed by James Webb, who understands how to manage the often-volatile emotions of encounters like this one.

The warmth of the humor is what grabs you first; the one-act is set in a newly-rented coffee shop, where two old friends are about to take the plunge and start a business together.  They sing, they dance their way through an empty space that soon will be filled, they hope, with customers as welcoming as they are.  Their friendship across the racial divide—Angela is black, Lauren is white—is their inspiration for a place where people can get together and form a truly diverse community.

On the surface, Angela and Lauren have so much in common—both are classmates from a rigorous performing arts program, both have 20-year-old sons, and they both have new significant others in their lives.  But for all their camaraderie, we see signs of difference; very significant ones.  Angela’s long, detailed lecture over the phone to her son—about how to drive, and how to handle law enforcement when (not if) he gets pulled over—strikes Lauren as ‘helicopter parenting’ – a remark that earns gasps from the audience, because we can already tell how little Lauren herself would need to counsel her white son about the same road trip.

An unsettling encounter with a loan officer at the bank has further reminded Angela that no matter her accomplishments, as a black woman and an entrepreneur she still has to fight for the respect that Lauren herself can take for granted. 

As the list of differences become too great to ignore, we see how each of these women have a blind side; blindness borne of personal barriers erected for self-protection, which might give them the illusion of safety but which prevent them from seeing each other—really seeing each other.  Because of their bond, however, they finally commit to an honest conversation, where their histories and fears can be laid out and resolved.

The genius of “Dissonances” is the way that it reveals, and then gently dismantles, those walls we erect around ourselves, those unconscious fears that prevent us from really communicating and empathizing with people different from ourselves.  Both Duncan and Sandel create human beings we recognize instantly—their virtues intact, their flaws visible but never damning. 

The genesis of this play was a conversation Sandel and Duncan had, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by members of the Minneapolis Police.  Both recognized that there were gaps in their understanding of each other, and both knew that it was that lack of mutual understanding that was contributing to racial tensions—across the country, not just in Minneapolis.  Together, these talented artists have created a space where we can laugh together, groan together, and understand each other in ways that may not have seemed possible, given the ways our media bombard us with tension-filled rants.  

The visual metaphor here, throughout the play, is an important one:  at one point, we see a lovely, framed-and-mounted photo of the two friends, smiling for the camera.  The fate of that photo, and its frame, is well worth tracking as you watch.  Sometimes the simplest of props can speak eloquently indeed.

So here’s the pitch:  all y’all need to see Essential Theatre’s current production of Dissonance.  Get off your couches, tell Netflix and Hulu you’ll see them later, you’ve got business to attend to in Anacostia.  Good Hope Road is seeing a renaissance, and the Anacostia Arts Center is at the heart of that renewal.  Come early—there’s good BBQ just a half block away.

Production Photo:  Marci J. Duncan and Kerry Sandel (in mid-air).  Photo by Anthony Nolan for Artists at Play, LLC.

Running time:  90 minutes with no intermission.

Dissonance runs through June 11, Tuesdays thru Thursdays and Sundays@ 7pm, Friday and Saturdays @ 7:30 pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 4 pm

Performances are in the black box theater Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, Washington, DC 20020.

For tickets/more info visit:  Click Here .


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