RIghts of Passage
By Michelle Tyrene Johnson
Directed by Sibyll Rolle
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
A Black citizen is dead. Shot down by a White police officer. It has happened often enough to make us wonder if we have become inured to such a thing. The roll call is long and continuing to grow: Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor.
Louisville based playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson wrote Rights of Passage in 2014 and offered no updates for this virtual production from Four Walls Theater for the very simple reason that it is in its every aspect the play is as relevant to July 2020. It could have been written a week ago.
Her tidy, if talky text shows in real-time a first meeting between a young White police officer and a prospective defense attorney after the officer has shot and killed a Black teenager. The officer, Victor Holland (Henry Gardner) is earnest but not naive, fraught with anxiety about the possibility of persecution and prosecution, and the White attorney, Aubrey Scott (Neil Redfield) is arrogant and piercing in his questions, while his Black colleague, Pat (Coda Boyce) barely manages to contain her rage towards Victor.
Yet things are not exactly what they seem, and Johnson takes enough interest in upending our expectations to allow sympathy and insight for all three characters. She refuses to demonize but she also leaves us without complete resolution so that we are left with the need to wrestle with our own biases and conflicts of the heart.
Johnson is herself a Black woman, so the authenticity of Pat’s emotional struggle may have come more naturally, but the degree to which she explores the nuance of Victor’s situation is important. Is he a racist? Was he more likely to shoot because the teenager was Black? Johnson provides no pat answers and gives voice to the perspective of law enforcement confronted with the terrible split-second moment in which to react.
That balance is crucial to the play’s power. Johnson restricts the scene to one office space and the action of the play is talk, talk, and more talk, but the emotions are ripe and explosive, so the interactions are dynamic. She also has a highly tuned ear for defining character through dialogue. Each member of this troika has a distinct voice, and the sharp, acerbic words that come our of Aubrey’s mouth are a particular delight. His dextrous verbal gymnastics are entertaining, but also hint at the deeper truths of the scenario.
The actors carry the greatest burden of the performance in virtual productions and on that point Rights Of Passage scores well, with strong work from all three of this well-chosen cast. All are newly graduated from theatre programs in different parts of the country. Four Walls Theater is a company with a mission to produce only virtual productions, which means the actors and crew can literally be anywhere. Boyce, Gardner, & Redfield were all in different states as they performed, and director Sibyll Rolle conducted rehearsals while in the Caribbean.
There is also good use of historical images to frame the action, providing obvious but useful context, with sound design by M. Florian Staab featuring vocals by Ava Saunders.
Rites of Passage acknowledges that repercussions can be everlasting and sometimes impossible to overcome and that even when we recognize the common humanity of people on both sides of the question it doesn’t make individuals any less accountable.
Featuring Coda Boyce, Henry Gardner, and Neil Redfield.
RIghts of Passage
Live streaming premiere July 10
Available to view through July 24
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.