Produced by Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre, Chicago
MPAACT Find Beauty in Growing Pains
I hope everybody enjoyed Mother’s Day, because MPAACT has a show that will remind everyone of how upsetting losing a mother is. The Divine Order of Becoming, written by MPAACT playwright-in-residence Carla Stillwell, was first produced in 2005. Ten years later, she’s revived it, and her production still conveys raw pain. Even though we know intellectually that death is part of life, and hope children will outlive their parents, it is hard for the mind to overrule emotions in moments of crises. This play is about those moments.
Erica (Marina Dee) is having a meltdown. Gasping for breath and on the verge of tears, she thinks back to one of the earliest times she remembers being unhappy. Some other children wouldn’t play with her, and she’d gone crying to her mamma, Eve Victor (Daryl Charisse). Eve promised to yell at those children loud enough for the whole block to hear, but first, she taught Erica to snap green beans. The little girl perked up, and adult Erica prefers to keep on remembering, rather than face her present. During another cooking lesson, little Erica hadn’t been so polite, but Eve had dealt with her fairly, and the grown-up Erica is glad for her mother’s wisdom. With that prompting, a voice in her head that sounds like her mother’s tells her to stop hiding, and listen to what her mother told her.
Dee plays her character at every age, slipping into and out of memories with changes in voice and posture. There are a few times when she has to do this rapidly, and the transition is always clear. We see Erica grow, sometimes fighting with her mother, and sometimes bonding with her. Dee is convincing throughout, as everything from a resentful teenager, to a nervous, but hopeful young woman. She shares a wonderful warmth with Charisse, whose character is more stable, but just as complex. Eve learned her lessons the hard way, and had to forgive herself and find ways of fixing what she could of her past mistakes. The biggest recurring point of tension between her and Erica was their relationship with Erica’s three older sisters. Eve and Erica’s father had been struggling with addiction, legal, and mental problems during those girls’ childhoods, and they grew up to mimic their parents. Eve was determined to do better with Erica, but she still felt a responsibility towards her other children, which Erica did not share. That regret gives Eve a humility and urgency that balances Erica’s impatience, providing the actors with fuel for making something as small as an argument over Erica leaving her clothes on the floor into a conflict of greater significance.
This being an MPAACT show, Desta Sound and Red Clay provide musical accompaniment throughout. In a story as focused on emotional turmoil as this one, that’s a good thing, because the offstage beats and riffs create a meditative mood. The Divine Order of Becoming has a lot in common with MPAACT’s revival of The Inside from earlier this season, in how introspective it is. And like The Inside, The Divine Order of Becoming denies us easy answers to life’s problems. Sure, Eve delivers a lesson about finding the beauty in harsh things, and how challenge like caring for your dying mother are what make a person strong enough to take control of their own life. But Dee’s performance was too intense for it to be believable that Erica found much comfort in playing back her mother’s words.
The other lesson she learned was that when something bad happens, you have a small amount of time to feel angry and sad, but then you have to force yourself to move on. These are grim lessons for a play, but worthy ones, and the production convinces you of their wisdom. The Divine Order of Becoming isn’t all gloom; Charisse is often hilarious, and her Eve provides Erica with lots of good memories. Eve had a more playful personality than Erica, and they often complemented each other in everything from discussions on chin hair, to excitedly planning on buying a car. Stillwell knows how to find the emotional extremes in everyday occurrences, and blend them together into a coherent whole. That makes the play rich and textured, but challenges the audience to open themselves to it.
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Divine Order of Becoming’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $16.50-25; to order, call 773-404-7336 or visit www.mpaact.org. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Running time is seventy-five minutes with no intermission.