A commanding performance of a police officer in ‘Wanda’s Way’ at 1st Stage

The impressive and versatile Deidra LaWan Starnes solos in a hard-hitting and heartbreaking play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings.

The Logan Festival of Solo Performance at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia, kicked off Thursday night with a thrill in the air—the first Logan Festival in three years in which the performances were back inside the theater with its avant-garde, Off-Broadway vibe—and with the world premiere of Wanda’s Way by acclaimed local playwright and American University theater professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings.

The play, recently commissioned by 1st Stage, features a commanding performance from Deidra LaWan Starnes bringing forth eleven distinct characters.

Deidra LaWan Starnes as Officer Wanda Williams in ‘Wanda’s Way.’ Photo by Emily Wall.

The character at the center of it all is Officer Wanda Williams, an inner-city police officer, with a history on the block that stretches back to her mother, a retired police officer. While the city is never named, the overtones of Baltimore or Washington, DC, are clear. We have seen these blocks. We have not, however, ever seen a character quite like Officer Wanda Williams.

Williams is torn between her allegiance to the police force, to her precinct, to her beat—she’s a street cop who patrols her childhood neighborhood—and her artist husband, her namesake daughter, and her mother. The central conflict is hers. She owns it.

The secondary characters that step forth from the impressive and versatile Starnes mostly add to deepen our knowledge of Officer Williams—notably, her brilliant, angry teenager daughter. Some characters, a defiant street kid, the wife of her partner, fall into the familiar territory of so many television cop shows.

For Officer Wanda Williams, there’s fresh power in her words—and her presence. Deidra LaWan Starnes takes charge of the stage with all the characters, but especially with Williams. Starnes is the Associate Artistic Director of 1st Stage, an actor, a theater educator, and a director, but at this moment on the stage, she is, most of all, Officer Wanda Williams.

Williams’ lines are poetic, hard-hitting, and heartbreaking. Williams’ hopes and disappointments ring out—the American dream for her and for those she protects is no longer a dream. It’s a dream denied.

When a major rally is planned at her precinct to protest an incident of police brutality and things go terribly, unexpectedly wrong for Williams, the grief cuts and carries us forth—right into the pain of January 6, 2021. The playwright has dedicated Wanda’s Way to the officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on that day.

The directing, by Angelisa Gillyard, has a physicality that also commands the stage, which is a credit to her background as a choreographer as well as a director.

The one false note in the production is the song that ends this riveting solo show—it’s a song that is also the soundtrack of an overplayed pharmaceutical TV ad.

Leave the audience with Williams’ last words. We’ve seen all the cop shows, all the Law and Orders, all the NCIS series, but we have never seen a character like Officer Wanda Williams—demanding that we take this journey to her beat, and into her beating heart.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Wanda’s Way plays July 30 at 8:00 PM, July 31 at 7:00 PM, August 4 at 7:30 PM, and August 6, 2022, at 2:00 PM, in repertory with Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life and Spanking Machine at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For the complete Logan Festival of Solo Performance schedule and to purchase tickets ($20 general, $15 educators or military, $10 students, $50 Festival Pass), go online or call 703-854-1856.

The Logan Festival of Solo Performance program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. See complete 1st Stage’s COVID Safety Information here.

1st Stage 2022/23 season brings four regional premieres to Tysons
(news story)
‘Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life’ at 1st Stage is storytelling at its best (Logan Festival of Solo Performance review by Carolyn Bock)
‘Spanking Machine’ at 1st Stage is both damn funny and healing (Logan Festival of Solo Performance review by Gwyneth Sholar)


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