Emotional intimacy, deeply knowing someone who matters and allowing yourself to be deeply known, is hard. Living in a kind of gated community of the heart can seem safer. Breaking free of that cul de sac, so that one can live in way that is truly joyful, is at the center of The Joy That Carries You, a world premiere play by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller now at the Olney Theatre Center.
A young couple in their first year of living together, Alaia (Billie Kirshawn) and Shiri (Stoller), tread carefully around each other’s feelings. They readily express being in love but leave much unsaid. In the first act, co-directors Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister have the two almost, but not quite, kiss on a number of occasions, a nice metaphor for the as-yet somewhat tentative state of their relationship.
Alaia is African American, Shiri is Jewish. Shiri’s family quite happily accept her loving a Black female partner; Alaia’s family, especially her mother, do not accept Alaia’s sexuality and relationship choice. The religious practice of Shiri’s family is liberal Jewish; that of Alaia’s family is Baptist. (A potent polarity affecting relationships these days, politics, does not arise.) In less assured hands, Alaia and Shiri could be little more than embodiments of points somewhere on an intersectionality Venn diagram. The playwrights’ skills and vibrant acting performances by the principals instead provide credible portraits of two very different women seeking ways to be more fully together.
Shiri moves and talks rapidly and anxiously, constantly gesturing, insecure about the stability of Alaia’s love for her. Alaia speaks no less quickly but more poetically (the character is a poet). The tempo between them is more often presto than legato. Musical terms fit here, as a series of lyrical monologues, beautifully delivered by Kirshawn, allow Alaia to explore and explain her feelings in what might aptly be called spoken arias.
The play does not skimp on character development for the principals’ families. Shiri’s dad, Martin (Michael Russoto), seldom at a loss for the last word in any conversation, and over-enthusiastically hospitable on first meeting Alaia, warms into someone capable of empathy. His relationship with his wife, Nancy (Susan Rome), who is Shiri’s stepmother, and is the quieter partner in her marriage, seems a happy one.
Alaia’s mother (Lolita Marie) and her husband, Beau (James J. Johnson), who is Alaia’s stepfather, likewise have a happy, sometimes playful, relationship, in which Beau is the quieter partner. The family’s mood is shadowed by Ma’s estrangement from Alaia, who left the house some years before over tension concerning Alaia’s sexual orientation. Alaia feels that her mother cannot accept fully who she is; Ma feels her daughter has abandoned her and her brothers. Alaia’s brother Exekiel (Bru Ajueyitsi) is troubled not so much that his sister lives with a woman as that she lives with a white woman. Zeke too grows in the course of the play, becoming an agent of reconciliation.
What propels the story beyond a formulaic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario (a program note suggests that Secka and Stoller got an initial idea for the play from the 1967 movie) is a death in Alaia’s family. The stakes become higher, the emotions stronger, less guarded, and raw. At the end of the first act, Alaia and Shiri quarrel, threatening their relationship. In the second act, Alaia and Ma have a near Albee-level coming to terms, baring long-held resentments, leaving Beau and Zeke as mute spectators. These confrontations are not simply loud spats: they have dramatic impact because they go to the foundations of who the characters are.
The world in which these memorable characters live is created by one of the best and most inventive technical theater productions I have seen. In Misha Kachman’s scenic design, the playing surface — situated between two banks of seats — has a sofa and chairs at one end, a dining table and refrigerator at the other. It serves as the home for both families. Both families get their food from the same refrigerator, important in a play in which food plays an important role in the meeting of cultures. In the end, both families can feel at home in that common space.
Above the playing space are picture frames, hanging at various angles, illuminated to display scenes from the two families and their cultural backgrounds. Even more significant, in Alberto Segarra’s excellent lighting design, are illuminated rectangles in the walls above either end of the set. Their colors change with the emotions in a given scene, beginning and ending the show in yellow/gold, as Alaia expresses feelings evoking those colors in her poetry.
The sound design (Matthew Nielsen) is varied and always apt, whether involving a cacophony of voices, city sounds subtly in the background, the unmistakable entrance music of Law and Order, telephone rings that actually come from the location of the telephone, or a clip from The West Wing that leads to a mention of Aaron Sorkin, appropriate in a play involving such verbal fluency. Danielle Preston’s costumes are perfectly attuned to the characters, highlighted by Alaia’s stunning black dress in the final scene.
The play is ultimately hopeful about the possibilities of understanding among people of different backgrounds; of love that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions; of overcoming hurt, anger, and rejection given honesty, empathy, and the willingness to change: all things to embrace in what seems an increasingly tribal world. An emotionally true story, well-acted characters worth caring about, and a gorgeous theatrical package make The Joy That Carries You one of the gems of the current theater season.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, 25 minutes, including one intermission.
The Joy That Carries You plays through June 12, 2022, in the Mulitz Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($59–$64) can be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or online. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, active military, and students.
The program for The Joy That Carries You is here.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required to attend all performances in the 150-seat Mulitz Gudelsky Theatre Lab only. Exceptions may be made for those who are not vaccinated, such as children under 5 (although per content guidance, The Joy That Carries You is not appropriate for young children), people with certain medical conditions preventing vaccination, or those with closely held religious beliefs. These patrons must provide proof of a timely negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours or a rapid antigen test taken within six hours of showtime. Visit OlneyTheatre.org/vax for more information.
Accessibility: There will be a sign-interpreted performance on Thursday, June 2, 2022, at 7:45 pm and an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, at 7:45 pm. Learn more about accessibility at Olney Theatre Center.
The Joy That Carries You
Story by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller
Directed by Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister
Scenic Designer: Misha Kachman
Costume Designer: Danielle Preston
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Sound Designer: Matthew Nielson
Dramaturg: Alissa Klusky
Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie