Theatre Review: “Black Gold” at the Phoenix Theatre

Last Thursday night (4/17/08) I went to the Phoenix Theatre to see the rolling world premiere of Seth Rozin’s new satire, “Black Gold.”    It was directed by Brian Fonseca.  

A gentle African-American man, Curtis Walker (Kahlil Jahiz), buys an oil rig on e-Bay and installs it in his back yard in a depressed neighborhood in Detroit.  Turns out, there is an ocean of oil down there!  He and his family are going to be rich!

Aren’t they?

Six excellent actors (Jahiz plus Milton Britton, Jr., Milicent Wright, Jonathan Spivey, Carmen Rae Meyers, and Kurt Owens) play a gazillion roles – from world leaders to soldiers to mothers to Middle Eastern theatre-goers to car mechanics to 7th graders to dead bodies in Africa, and more – to help us track a multitude of oil-related stories taking place around the world at the same time as Curtis’ story.  The pace is FAST but remarkably easy to follow.   The mood changes imperceptibly over time from hilarious to heart-breaking.

In fact, this 95-minute piece is absolutely packed with clever layers of truth disguised as story.   It is laugh-out-loud funny…and somehow also both chilling and hopeful.  Or maybe I am just determined to be optimistic, no matter what…No!  There is hope in this play, too, along with the violence, greed, betrayal, bitterness, disappointment, and ominousness.  I cried at the end and leaped to my feet to applaud.

I had delayed-reaction tears, too:  I cried some more as I left the theatre after sitting in on a group discussion.  More about that conversation in a moment.

My delayed-reaction tears probably came because some of the images in the piece act on the audience almost subliminally.  One tableau, for example, echoes the famous 1970 Kent State riots photo.  I didn’t pick up on this until someone else pointed it out to me, but as soon as he said it, I thought, “Yes!”

But also my tears came from my heightened awareness that everything, everyone, is connected.   The world’s, and especially the United States’, dependence on oil affects all individuals.  While I am sitting here typing this theatre review onto the Internet for you, people elsewhere are dying.  And loving, yes, and working, and struggling, and whatever, just like me and you.  But the thing is: we are a global community.  At this very moment, there are huge events and trends going on all over that affect each of us.  We need, _I_ need, to be more aware of the bigger picture.

The stories in this piece are so personal, and so skillfully cut together, that it is impossible to keep thinking about global issues as “other people” and “not my problem.”

In the play, there are human pop-ups, just like there are pop-ups that are blocked here on my laptop.  It is funny to a) realize that the characters are pop-ups and then b) watch one of the other characters “click” the human pop-ups off and out of the way.  But the presence of pop-ups, too, highlights the fact that many things are happening simultaneously.

The play feels tied to 2007-2008 in some ways, and timeless in others.  For example, at one point, two of the characters are eating “Harry Potter burgers” at the local fast food chain.  Also, there is a Hilary Clinton-like character (Carmen Rae Meyers) running for president.  Curtis Walker (Kahlil Jahiz) says bitterly, “I know the president’s always going to be a white man.”   On the other hand, President Strunk (Kurt Owens) is sort of a cross between Bush and Clinton, and ultimately, his character is more about the corruption of power than about any individual in real life.

Many, many scenes are funny and/or moving.  Some scenes are unexpectedly sexy.  At the Petroholics’ Anonymous meeting, Jonathan Spivey’s sensual description of pumping gas had me breathless with laughter.

Other scenes are thought-provoking even as they echo what one would expect in real life.  Milicent Wright plays an honest but ambitious politician.  We learn that she is willing to compromise in order to advance – no surprise there.  Yet I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to her well-meaning soul in the White House.

Still other scenes are unexpectedly thought-provoking.   A Palestinian boy (Milton Britton, Jr.) and an Israeli boy (Jonathan Spivey) work on a theatrical production together in the hope of bringing about peace in their community.  When the audience attending the show threatens to go on a feeding frenzy of violence, the boys “go off script” spontaneously in a way that helps the people see, at least for the moment, that they (we!) all care about our children more than our differences.  Afterwards, the boys’ amazement at the power of their art is touching.

But then a narrator says that little did the boys know, but a wicked witch reviewer was in the audience, and even as they were basking in the knowledge that they had done good work, she had posted on her internationally-read blog that their performances were “wooden.” 

I murmured, “Oh, no!” in sympathy even as I laughed.  I agree with the playwright’s unspoken message: reviews are just reviews.  They don’t (or at least, should not be allowed to) change the validity of an artist’s or an audience’s experience of a piece.  I would add that yes, words have power, and writers have responsibility, but rather than eliminate or censor reviewers, we should be trying to get even more people writing and thinking and talking about art. 

I got to sit in on a discussion after the show between the director, Bryan Fonseca, and another playwright, Tony McDonald, and McDonald’s “Oral Interpretation” college class.  The students commented on how skilled all of the actors were at quickly differentiating their many characters through changes in accent, posture, and simple costumes.  Some of the changes were very subtle yet still crystal clear.

Fonseca said that it was as important for the actors to know where they were going next, and as which character, as it was for them to figure out how to portray each character.    They looked for the truth in every scene, which is especially important in a satire. 

Fonseca also said that he loves the challenge of figuring out a new play.  After directing and producing shows for over 25 years, the process is very familiar to him, but each project is still new, with its own energy, its own life.  He enjoys figuring out the puzzle.

One of the students said she had never been to the Phoenix before and wondered why she had never known that Indy has such an exciting, relevant theatre.  Fonseca said that they rely mostly on word of mouth for advertising.  “We know you won’t like everything,” he said.  “But when something does speak to you, share that.  Tell ten friends.” 

He also suggested ways for people to afford a Phoenix Theatre habit:  Volunteer to usher and see the show for free.  Go during “Cheap seats weekend,” which is always the first weekend in the run and during which tickets are only $15.  Tickets for people aged 24 and younger are always just $15.  The Wednesday after opening weekend is “Pay What You Can” night: admission is a can of food to donate to a local shelter.

Fonseca also talked a little about the work of the Phoenix theatre as a whole.  He said that the Phoenix does ensemble-based shows such as “Black Gold” more often than any other kind.  I.e. – no spear carriers.  Also, “no one else consistently gives voice to absolutely new things that we need to pay attention to.  That’s the Phoenix’ niche in the Indianapolis theatre community.”

McDonald pointed out that the Phoenix does one bilingual show each year, too.  This year the bilingual piece is “Papa Esta en la Atlantida,” by Javier Malpica.  It personalizes the immigration issue by showing the impact on the people who are left behind.  It also offers live theatre to the growing population of Spanish speakers in Indianapolis.  Some of the performances will be in the original Spanish, others in English as translated by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas.  “Papa” runs May 8- June 8 in the Frank and Basile underground space at the Phoenix.

Fonseca said he loves playwrights because they don’t pull punches.  Playwrights are the vanguard.  Theatre speaks to issues immediately.  TV and movies are usually five years behind, and even then they dilute the issue.  He asked the students, “What was the first AIDS movie you saw?” 

“‘Philadelphia.'” 

“That movie came out in 1993 and even then what people focused on was that two men share one brief kiss.  We had our first AIDS play in 1985.  Like the guy in Gulliver’s Travels, playwrights yell to the rest of us:  ‘There’s a giant on the beach!’  We look to plays for truth, for the answers to the questions and hassles in our lives.  

“And they are fun.”  Fonseca grinned.  “They don’t call it ‘plays’ for nothing.”

Speaking of which, the technical designs for this show are as much fun as the superb acting.  I especially loved the “whirrp!” of the stock market in Matt Reynolds’ sound design.  Director Bryan Fonseca’s set design has a delightful pop-up feature (“pop-up” as in the books, this time, rather than the Internet.)  Karen Witting’s costumes, Justin Kidwell’s props, and Laura E. Glover’s lighting design all help the audience to connect more deeply with the numerous characters and follow their stories.

“Black Gold” continues Thursday-Sunday on the Phoenix Theatre main stage through May 4.  To make a reservation, please call 317-635-PLAY.

 Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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