It is Sunday, August 4, 1996 and we are witnessing the Sunday service of Winged Elm Baptist Church in Boligee, Alabama. Three parishioners, Missionary, Brother and Elder are enraptured in their love of God when they realize that the church is burning and they are trapped. To while away the time they spin the tale of how this fire came to be, but it is not the physical fires that burned hundreds of churches, most of them historically black in the mid-1990's that Every Tongue Confess seeks to present on the stage. It is the burning fires in the people of Boligee and how the world is connected in a tightly wound web. It is how the mercy and forgiveness not shown to one individual infects and spreads and burns through the entire community until at last the fire blazes to an unsettling conclusion. A conclusion in which every one must confess their role in the conflagration and only then seek redemption.
Acclaimed playwright Marcus Gardley, known for his works On the Levee and ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, has had his latest work chosen for a world premiere production as the first work to be produced in the brand-new Kogod Cradle space at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater. The play is a strong beginning for a theater that will be dedicated to first, second and third productions of emerging new work by American playwrights. For a first production, Every Tongue Confess, is a strong, well-crafted play. It is The Thespian's belief that there is very little that needs to be refocused and revised for its next production.
This is a lyrical play. Do not attend expecting a straightforward realistic drama to unfold upon the stage. Many magical and spiritual elements occur in the course of the work that one must simply embrace. In some respects, Mr. Garvey's language brings to mind that of the great August Wilson. He provides a sense of poetry within the strong dramatic monologues recited by the characters. And he spins such a tale that, while the audience may deem it obvious who is responsible for burning the church, he finds a way to redeem that character and provide ways for the rest of the cast to see their own faults and find their own ways to redemption.
Act two is stronger dramatically than act one. We spend a lot of time weaving the elements of the story together and while, act one ends on a dramatic merge of the story lines, it feels like it could use a bit more tweaking. And one character's story does not lead to a completely satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps her ending could be rethought so that she can also be redeemed and laid to rest.
Our stories of the fires that burn within are threefold. First we meet Bernadette (Leslie Kritzer) and her daughter Benny (Autumn Hurlbert). Benny frustrated by her mother's smoking has flushed her cigarettes not realizing that they masked a large amount of cocaine which Bernadette's boyfriend, Bobby (E. Roger Mitchell who also plays Brother) had intended to sell. This leads to an accidental shooting in which Bernadette is placed in a coma. Benny, traumatized by this loses her voice when a metaphorical swallow literally swallows her voice box. The second fire comes from Benny's father, Stoker Pride (Jim Ireland), an apparent stereotypical redneck who is a bitter drunk. Bernadette left him for a black man while pregnant with Benny. Due to the circumstances, Benny is forced by social services represented by the efficient Tender Meeks (Crystal Fox who also plays the Missionary) to live with her father. And thirdly, we are introduced to Mother Sister (Phylicia Rashad) a pillar of the community known for her ability to heal the spiritually wounded, unless the moon is blocked causing her to become literally and figuratively blind. Mother Sister is a single parent to Shadrack (Jason Dirden) a teenager with dreams of Nashville. Seeking her healing is Jeremiah (Eugene Lee who also plays Elder) the church's gravedigger and the mysterious Blacksmith (Jonathan Peck) who arrives on her doorstep demanding a meal and a bath.
How these characters are actually interrelated by the flaws of mankind is the real fire upon this stage. All of the actors are excellent in their roles, but outstanding performances are given by Ms. Rashad, who is more than the saintly healer, a true commanding leader of the community, Mr. Peck who seems both threatening and intriguing, Mr. Ireland who takes the most difficult role in the play and finds ways to use the playwright's words to make him sympathetic, and Ms. Hurlbert who holds a powerful gospel voice in a tiny white girl's body.
The play contains strongly adult themes and is appropriate for mature teenagers. The production should be seen by those interested in the emergence of a great American playwrighting voice.
Every Tongue Confess will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage through January 2, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.