Who will believe my verse in time to come?… The age to come would say ‘This poet lies’… But were some child of yours alive that time, You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme. — William Shakespeare (Sonnet 17)
“Whose stories remain and whose role is it to ensure they survive.” — from the online publicity for Our Verse in Time to Come
Washington, DC, which for one brief moment was known as the Chocolate City, has changed. Our Verse in Time to Come is a kind of recognition of that change, an homage to what was before and a bid to collaborate in creating a future that honors the accomplishments of the city’s past.
The story takes place in Washington, DC, which in addition to being ”the nation’s capitol” is also its own town, with local concerns and culture. Watching this play, with its cast of energetic and hopeful performers, reminded me of other stellar and worthwhile home-grown accomplishments: the Mike Malone/Peggy Cooper-Cafritz partnership that eventually led to the establishment of the internationally renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Step Afrika!, Jones-Haywood Dance School, Living Stage (the project of Arena Stage), and many others.
Washington, DC, has become a home for theater and not merely a theater town. The performers in this production reflect the emergence of a theater community that came into being as a result of the hard work of well-trained predecessors.
Plot: It is the late 20th century (1970s/80s) and SOS (Equiano Mosieri) and his wife (Renea S. Brown) are artist-activists with twin children who live in Washington, DC. At a peaceful rally at McPherson Square, SOS is arrested and given a 25-year prison sentence. As his wife is leaving the prison grounds after visiting him, she is hit by a truck and killed. The play begins at the point when SOS has been given a compassionate release after developing dementia because of overuse of solitary confinement. With the help of his lawyer and friend, the public defender Joan Chen (Regina Aquino), SOS sets out to find his children and ensure that they have the legal papers they need in order to claim their inheritance — both financial and spiritual — after his death, and keep it from being claimed by the state. His dutiful son, Will (John Floyd), has become a teacher, and his resentful daughter, Vi (Renea S. Brown), has become a politician. When SOS goes missing, Joan Chen rallies the twins to search for him as well as the pieces of his legacy that he had entrusted to a variety of sympathizers prior to his imprisonment. In the course of that search, they learn a history of themselves and the community that shaped them. What they learn changes the way they think and act as family members and citizens. It also changes the possibilities they are able to imagine for their future and the future of the city.
All of the craftspeople involved in this production are more than competent. They improvise and they sing. They engage with the audience. But Reg Wyns! This man’s persona defines the extroverted Fool if ever there was one. Well, the role is written that way. But he threw himself into the part with all four feet. He cajoled. He teased. He praised and occasionally gave the side-eye. It was his job to get the audience involved and he did. Later, when he played the formerly incarcerated Black now turned pastor, I was moved to exclaim to the person sitting next to me, “Of course, he would be the pastor. I knew it.”
All of the actors play their multiple role assignments nimbly. Without a glitch or hiccup, Renea S. Brown moved back and forth from the sensual wife and strong-willed activist mother to the 21st-century capitalist-media-savvy politician and daughter Vi Waters.
Regina Aquino as Joan Chen was transparent, an ally who in her actions embodies the belief that “none of us are free until all of us are free.”
Some years ago, I saw Jonathan Del Palmer’s subtle and sensitive turn as a nerdy Black man in Moon Man Walk. As Jimmy, a student of SOS when they were both incarcerated, he showed a forceful, hard-edged side.
John Floyd as Will Waters gave us a sympathetic portrait of that caring, inspirational teacher that all of us remember.
Kaiyla Gross as Sprite: what a voice. And in her tug-of-war scene with an opportunistic Vi Waters, she demonstrated an ability to grasp the audience’s attention and redirect it where it is needed.
Equiano Mosieri as SOS, the dreadlocked activist and community elder, gave a believable, pathos-filled performance. I could not help thinking about elder social justice activists (e.g., Leonard Peltier) from the 20th century who still remain in prison.
Nick tha 1da Hernandez must be called out for his incendiary sound design, composition, and DJ’ing. The sounds he produced placed the audience firmly in the recognizable soul music history of the play that is still negotiating its transformation into the hip-hop present.
Often there is a palpable condescension in the interplay between the canon of European literature and its American but non-European audience. But this script honors the value and integrity of American experience and the places where Shakespeare’s creative efforts touch and mirror the mutual humanity of those American lives. Playwrights Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels in collaboration with Devin E. Haqq (along with composers Daniels and Nick tha 1da Hernandez) have produced a work that is carefully constructed and honed, in a way that is similar to the way that modern music strategically samples and re-incorporates relevant musical passages from past musical works. It’s just that they include Shakespeare’s words in their sampling process.
Vernice Miller’s directing masterfully transitions from scene to scene. Platforms and props and entrances and exits of the actors are all executed with a smooth, often surprising, yet unobtrusive choreography.
Touring the public libraries with this production was a great idea. Bringing it back would be an even better one.
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
Our Verse in Time to Come is a project that Folger Shakespeare Library mounted from April 3 to April 23, 2023, in various libraries throughout the District, and from April 25 to April 30, 2023, at Woolly Mammoth Theater.
Further information about Our Verse in Time to Come including cast and creative credits is online here.
Our Verse in Time to Come
Written by Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels in collaboration with Devin E. Haqq
Joan Chen: Regina Aquino
Vi Waters: Renea S. Brown
Jimmy: Jonathan Del Palmer
Will Waters: John Floyd
Sprite: Kaiyla Gross
SOS: Equiano Mosieri
Black: Reg Wyns
Standby: Sylvern Groomes Jr.
Standby: Elizabeth Mpanu-Mpanu
CREW AND CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Vernice Miller
Playwright and Music Direction: Malik Work
Playwright and Composer: Karen Ann Daniels
Collaborator: Devin E. Haqq
Scenic Designer: Harlan Penn
Costume Designer: Jeannette Christensen
Sound Designer, Composer and DJ: Nick the 1da Hernandez
Associate Director: Angelisa Gillyard
Properties Designer: Chelsea Dean
Intimacy Director: Kaja Dunn
Dramaturg: John Ray Proctor III
Scenic Design Associate: Sarah Reed
Costume Design Associate: Cidney Forkpah
Production Stage Manager: Kate Kilbane
Assistant Stage Manager: Stephanie Smith
Casting Director: Darnica Rodriguez