In the stupendous world premiere Plan-B Theatre production of Camille Washington’s Oda Might, there are so many brilliantly executed moments of foreshadowing. Early in the play, the Patient (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) says she could sleep through group sessions and “daydream about the crowds on the J train.” Reminiscing about how she lost “half of her virginity” on that train, the Patient says, “I would give almost anything to be able to sit on it right now if it meant that none of this had happened to me. I would live out the rest of my days riding the J if it meant that I never met any of the people who got me in here. Living or dead.” The Doctor (Yolanda Stange) says, “The J? I feel like I could live a thousand lives and never dream about that train. Or any train.” She pauses, and adds, “Ever.”
Oda Might commands absolute attention from the audience. The simplest description is that it is two black women sitting and chatting at a table in a therapy session at a mental health institution in New York City. But, listen closely. The session starts conventionally enough, reflecting the sensitive, careful research the playwright conducted to fortify the credibility of a superbly crafted narrative. There are subtle ripples throughout the play that shake our expectations about the characters—a brief moment of nonverbal frustration in reaction to a spoken line, eye contact or a raised eyebrow reacting to an unexpected utterance, the growing sense that a puzzle is nearly completed but still missing the most critical piece or two.
The play is set in 1994. There is a cassette tape recorder. A prominent element in the institutionalized set design, a window, is perched high above the stage. There are references to props that are invisible in the play but serve as cues for the characters and clues for the audience. The orderly (Flo Bravo) is almost nonexistent during the first three-fourths of the play, only to pierce through in the exhilarating finale. The sound design is the bare minimum, save for the occasional rumbling noise of a passing subway train. Directed by Cheryl Cluff, the production starts at a crisp pace and accelerates in the final 15 minutes, coming in at under 70 minutes, maximizing the tension in the buildup and the thrill of the epiphany.
This is the pinnacle of minimalism. The cast delivers spellbinding performances, with Darby-Duffin and Stange riffing off each other in perfect chemistry. Bravo’s performance accents the narrative’s climax in perfect pitch.
As mentioned in The Utah Review preview of the play, Washington’s Oda Might is momentous for several reasons. It is the fifth and final world premiere that Plan-B committed to in its partnership with The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists. Washington’s script adeptly weaves through undertones of the Black Lives Matter movement, the problematic impact of respectability politics and the affirmation and acceptance of queer identities.
Another elucidating element is the issue of representation in the citadel of theater, where one signature aesthetic, especially when it comes to characters of color, typically has been the ‘magical Negro.’ To wit: the 1990 film Ghost where Oda Mae Brown, a spiritual medium (a role which earned actor Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) becomes the channel for an upscale white straight couple.
Washington reclaims and rethinks the trope in her script and characters. The Patient, a middle-aged black woman in a psychiatric hospital, relates details of her life as a spiritual medium who believes she is the scapegoat for a murder. She is candid about her life as a hustler. In explaining ‘The Gift,’ the Patient says, “In the beginning it was an easy fit. I was more interested in what I thought was quick money. Lots of people trusted me, but I thought it was because by then I’d studied really careful cons. They taught me how to use people’s vulnerability against them.”
We listen to The Doctor, who is a lesbian and has a partner, talk about how her mother believed it was foolish for her to study psychiatry. “To her, expressing feelings was too comfortable. That was her biggest hang up. Unearned comfort. This was an indulgence. To be uncomfortable, unsatisfied gave meaning to the struggle. I tried to tell her that confessing your inner thoughts isn’t necessarily all there is to it. An open pathway into her soul, she said, was a luxury she didn’t want.” The Patient acknowledges the Doctor’s remarks, adding, “I think misunderstanding is one of the greatest shames we put ourselves through.”
Washington’s Oda Might confronts and takes command over the consequences of sadly familiar, condescending displays of casually tolerant inclusionary rhetoric and stereotypes that have engendered more negative than positive impact. The characters negotiate the narrative through the frequent intersections of contemporary culture, entrenched racism and black womanhood. For white audience members, Oda Might is the opportunity to push the experience of whiteness off to the side and think critically about the multiple dimensions Washington raises. The dialogue the Patient and the Doctor engage in is not just a commiseration about disappointments, injustices and what-ifs of life but also about the realization of the black experience as having more agency than suggested by the convenient tokenizing or exploiting of a trope that has persisted unjustifiably well past its expiration date. Washington compels us to understand why the stories do not have to be surreal or magical but instead as realistic representations of complex, fully formed humans who are resilient but also affected by the experiences of disappointment and of emotional and physical pain.
This fall, several independent theater productions in Salt Lake City are offering potent examples of an enlightened performing arts environment that puts action to the talk about inclusion and diversity, a mission with which so many performing arts companies struggle. Oda Might leads Plan-B’s subscription series season of works by women playwrights. Two are by artists of color (Washington and Jenifer Nii’s The Audacity). Salt Lake Acting Company’s (SLAC) outstanding world premiere Form of a Girl Unknown, a play by Charly Evon Simpson, continues through Nov. 17. The play received a 2018 Davey Foundation Theatre Grant. Two of Simpson’s plays, including Form of a Girl Unknown, are listed on The Kilroys’ List, a group dedicated toward efforts for gender parity in theater, as part of the Top 4%, representing 33 works most recommended new plays by women, trans and nonbinary playwrights. Julie Jensen’s award-winning play Two-Headed, directed by Fran Pruyn, is being staged as the season opener for the Pygmalion Theatre Company, a quintessential all-women Utah production. The two female characters, as they are set in the rural area of southern Utah during the 19th century, contend with their individual and collective tests of conscience, friendship and identity against the backdrop of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, its memories, and the practice of polygamy. As Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s artistic director, said in a talk-back following a matinee performance of Oda Might about the staging of work by women and especially by historically underrepresented groups, “if Salt Lake City, of all places, can do it, so can any other city.”
Performances of Oda Might continue through Nov. 17 in the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. Performances will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Rounding out the production crew are Sam Allen, assistant director; Kevin Alberts, costume designer; Jennifer Freed, stage manager; Keven Myhre, set designer and William Peterson, lighting designer. For more information and tickets, see the Plan-B website.