If you could plan the day and hour of your death, how would you spend it?
Some of us, when we were young, developed a magical formulation about death: if we don’t think about it, it won’t happen. At least not to us. Some of us have not broken that habit yet. So, you know when you attend a play that is about death that there is a chance that there will be something in it that you will be at least a little bit triggered by. A play about death by suicide further raises the ante for the number of moments that could be potential triggers. A play in which the person who is going to commit suicide announces their decision to the woman who gave them birth, then announces that they would like to spend a typically normal evening with that mother, and proceeds to lay out the plans that have been made for the mother’s care, while waiting for their mother to prepare the hot chocolate and the caramel apples for their last evening together: this is a play that pricks your interest and fills you with questions. And that’s what Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, now playing at Anacostia Playhouse through May 13, does.
There are two lines in the play that I found particularly poignant.
At one point Thelma, the eponymous mother in the play, says: “I would sing all night to keep you alive.” On the other hand, Jessie, the daughter intent on ending her life, states: “This is how I have my say. I say ‘No.’ ‘No’ to you. ‘No’ to me. ‘No’ to hope.”
One says yes. The other says no. This is the quintessential setup for drama.
You just need two actors who are both 1) willing to take on the challenge and 2) worthy contenders. And the two actors in the Anacostia Playhouse production of ‘night, Mother are definitely worthy contenders. Patricia Willliams-Dugueye is a multiskilled craftsperson: a storyteller who has written, directed, produced, and performed her own adaptations of first-person slave narratives. Willliams-Dugueye plays Thelma, the mother. Lezlie Hatcher is a graduate of Howard University, where she studied under Vera Katz and Mike Malone. There is no better pedigree. Hatcher plays Jessie, the daughter.
Jessie’s and Thelma’s lives are impoverished financially and spiritually. (And nutritionally. Their lives are artificially propelled and sustained by the large amounts of sugar that they unquestioningly consume in various forms both branded and non-branded.) These people live drab lives and their plodding and dreary conversation reflects that drabness. Nevertheless, Hatcher and Williams-Dugueye engage with the words and the motivations behind those words with the gluttonous hunger of two people devouring the tastiest of long-awaited meals. Their performances evinced the tenacity and desperation of Jacob and his angel, wrestling.
Deirdre Starnes’ staging of the two women’s encounter focused cleanly on its wrestling aspect. I often felt like I was watching the two competitors assess each other while pacing around the ring.
The relationship of Jessie and Thelma, as played by these two actors of African heritage, takes us into an existential/universal arena while at the same time being culturally specific. For me, the set on which they conducted this engagement conflicted with the actors’ efforts towards the existential, and instead tended to confine us a little too much to a realistic/naturalistic realm of imagination, keeping this production from taking the kind of flight that it might have had and that the performers were aiming for.
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.
COVID Safety: Anacostia Playhouse is requiring proof of vaccination for indoor, in-person productions. Masks will be required for audience members except when eating or drinking. The venue’s full safety protocol is here.
‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman
Jessie, daughter: Lezlie Hatcher
Thelma, mother: Patricia Williams-Dugueye
CREW AND CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Deidra Starnes
Set Designer: April Joy
Costume Designer: Alison Johnson
Lighting Designer: Jerrell Harrington
Stage Manager: Denise Richards