From left to right: Nyazia Martin, Candace Spencer, Brandi LaShay, Aneesha Edwards, and Jasmine Smith. Photo by Stephan Carpenter in Afromemory. Photo: Tom Fougerousse
By Teshonne Powell
Directed by Nefertiti Burton
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I always welcome science fiction on the stage because it so rarely comes. Perhaps it plays best in the imagination prompted by the written word, or on the movie screen with millions of dollars of special effects circumventing the viewers own imagination. As a genre piece, Teshonne Powell’s Afromemory tends toward the former, suggestive and thoughtful enough to push the audience’s thinking.
In the year 2269, identifying by “race” is illegal, and there is no awareness of individual heritage or culture. All of the characters are described as “brown” in the script and they register variance in skin tone like PMS colors; Mahogany 43, or Seina 37, while assuming they are under near-constant surveillance by Authority Agents, even when going out with on a date arranged and approved by the government-controlled Tinder.
The story centers on Sara B. (Candace Spencer), a young professional sharing an apartment with Sara S. (Aneesha Edwards), which suggests Authority Approved rommates. They also share the space with Alexa, (Jasmine Smith), a small humanoid robot who functions much like, well, the Alexa you likely have in your home now.
A first date with John (Tajleed Hardy) leads to underground resistance that helps people reclaim personal and cultural history through a process not unlike a religious or spiritual ritual. All of which is illegal in this future because “race” has been eliminated.
Its a bit more complicated than that, if you pay close attention to two ancestors, Imani Nina (Nyazia Martin) and La’Nia Rose (Brandi Lashay) you will understand how Black women had their eggs and uterus surgically removed without their consent and had no relationship to the resulting generations. The science fiction uses known history (Henriette Lacks) to establish credibility. Most of the tech is just a few steps forward from what we now already use on a daily basis, so this world feels all too familiar.
And that’s the point. Science fiction provides just enough remove to make cogent commentary on the current world and American society. None of the action here seems far-fetched, and director Nefertiti Burton makes Alexa an actual bipedla robot when the script only calls for a table top device. It almost seems necessary to put quotation marks on the sci-fi aspect.
Aspen Mirfeldt’s cold and ascetic set design upholds the futuristic concept even if African American culture is the keynote for much of the design work, such as Zhanna Goldentuhl’s costumes, which evokes a whole aray of African American motifs with subtlety. The staging makes us clearly see the characters as akin to Black Americans in 2022. The look and actions of the two ancestors are unquestionably African in their sourcing, resplendent in flowing white fabric, magisterial headwear and jewelry, rooting everthing to that legacy.
The tight one-act structure is paced well and played with good energy by the ensemble with consistent quality. Performing fully masked, the vocal projection was strong and sure, and the dialogue clear.
In a post-show discussion, director Burton indicated that the play need not be focused on the forgotten ancestral memory of Black people, yet it is difficult not to see the influence of Afrofuturism and writers such as Octavia Butler in Powell’s play. However it’s creators view it, Afromemory is a welcome and necessary entry in the 21st century world of theatre.
Featuring Khristian Davis, Aneesha Edwards, Tajleed Hardy, Brandi LaShay, Nyasia Martin, Jasmone Smith, & Candace Spencer
February 17-19, 2021
University of Louisville Theatre Department
University of Louisville Playhouse
South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40208
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.