Directed by Deidre Searcy
Produced by MPAACT
Nuanced Exploration of an Ordinary Life
“It’s not so much that you need to hear it, but that it needs to be said.”
The above quote is said near the end of The Inside, the one-woman show now being produced by MPAACT. How much you enjoy the show depends on how sympathetic you are to that vision of theatre. The Inside doesn’t have dramatic tension. It’s the story of all the little contradictions, experiences, and desires that a young black woman named Emma (Kristine E. Ellis) negotiates at an ordinary gathering.
Emma is attending a college party in Chicago. She’s the only black woman there. A black man who looks like Idris Elba is also in attendance, but other than him, everybody is white, upper-middle class, artistic, and liberal. Emma says they’re wise enough not to be bothered by it. They are not, however, wise enough to refrain from constantly being unintentionally offensive. Emma knows she is being shown off. She resents the other women asking her to confirm that they’re oppressed. People ask if she washes her hair and tell her next time she comes to a party, she doesn’t need to bring anyone (black). And these are grad students, not just teenagers whose adulthood is a legal fiction derived from Vietnam-era politics. She wonders if the Idris Elba lookalike knows she’s a fool.
How did she wind up here? Emma explains to the audience that she was always middle-class, and brought up in college towns. Her mother expected her to be artistic and tough things out. She also knows there’s a certain comfort in isolation; that it’s convenient to use disdain as an excuse for not opening up. Get new friends? For a desperately lonely introvert, people who piss you off with every word out of their mouths may be the only friends you have. If you want to be an artist with an advanced knowledge of theory and history, you better get used to these people.
Kristin Ellis tells Emma’s story with such charm, you like her from the moment she appears. She’s as believable as the awkward, buzzed but not having fun adult as the almost-carefree child. Her voice is a powerful instrument, strained a little while running around a playground and backyard, but deceptively soft while making sharp observations at the party. Red Clay and Desta Sound’s choice of music creates a perfect ambiance for self-reflection in a crowd, and guides us as the plays shifts time and space. The beautiful set, with its back curtain of glass beads and liquor bottles and foregrounded chair and park bench, is expressionistic enough for the interior of a mind while still establishing the locations.
This story can provide some insight into the minds of people who don’t talk about themselves much. That Emma isn’t a uniquely fascinating person or in a particularly perilous situation is the point, not a failure of the artists’ vision. It may mean the play is not for you, though. If you go, enjoy the journey to another person’s planet. Judi Dench’s character in Notes on a Scandal has a line about bonding with people by sharing an ability to “see through the quotidian awfulness of things.” Lydia Diamond’s script will share the same with you.
Reviewed October 30, 2014
For more information, visit The Inside’s page at Theatre in Chicago.
At the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Call 773-404-7336. Production runs October 17-November 30, Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15-25. Run-time is 90 minutes without an intermission.