I remember reading somewhere, long ago, that if humans could build a powerful enough radar, we could capture every word ever spoken in the universe — the speeches of Abraham Lincoln; the discourses of the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed; the cadences of our own departed loved ones whose voices we struggle to remember. Perhaps ChatGPT will soon do this for us, although the downside is readily obvious (does anyone want to hear every word Donald Trump has spoken?). In the meantime, playwright Jose Rivera has captured words from the great beyond in his lyrical Sonnets for an Old Century, now running at DC’s Spooky Action Theater through June 25.
Modeled in part on Edgar Lee Masters’ early 20th-century classic Spoon River Anthology, Sonnets for an Old Century brings audiences face to face with a cast of characters who speak from what appears to be the afterlife. Under the direction of Elizabeth Dinkova, Spooky Action presents nine of these characters (there are 28 in all), who reflect a range of ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, life experiences, and topical concerns. Rivera has said that he wanted to draw a portrait of late-20th-century life in America, and many of the monologues presented here touch on issues of top-drawer concern, then and now. There is Lisa Hodsoll’s acerbic Jessica Hecht, who rages against the life-sucking L.A. smog “like some 20th-century … Captain Ahab” until the soiled air literally takes her breath away. There is Kay-Megan Washington’s pathos-laden Alena Dawson, an African American mother fearful for the safety and welfare of her son, who faces violence and discrimination both on the street and from the police, because in a racially divided America, there is scant recognition that “we are all the living, walking text of God.” And there is Rene Rivera, a struggling, closeted Latino actor doomed by the dominant-culture entertainment business to thankless roles as a drug addict, a gang member, a pimp, a pizza delivery guy. Played here on video by the playwright, Rene is a sympathetic figure who finds love and a way of manipulating the system at the moment he discovers he also has AIDS. Rene’s struggle for dignity in the face of long odds, even from his hospital bed, is one of the evening’s most moving moments. Through the threats of environmental degradation, racist violence, sexual discrimination, and healthcare inequity, the audience understands, sadly, that the “old century” is not so different from our own.
Director Elizabeth Dinkova ably uses the cavernous spaces and dark corridors of the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW to take the audience on a (literally) guided tour of the afterlife. Theatergoers are divided into three groups that move separately from space to space, where they encounter different characters and their stories. We meet a blue-collar worker (Jared Graham) in the church’s industrial kitchen, a woman (Raghad Almakhlouf) obsessed with writing nonsense on glass in a long, windowed corridor, a father (Jamil Joseph) in a children’s playroom recounting his and his young son’s tragic arrival in L.A. Occasional projections and soundscapes — particularly in a monologue delivered by a cosmologist (Jolene Mafnas) driven to the edge of reason by a new discovery in the universe — add texture and nuance to the tales the characters relate.
Less fortunate, perhaps, is the decision to present the “guides” (Barrett Doyle, Shana Laski, and Andrew Reilly) as somewhat ghoulish presences whose dress, makeup, and eerie finger-pointing silence can seem more House of Horrors than serious drama. At times, too, an overzealous earnestness infects the acting, which is otherwise strong and engaging. It is not easy to deliver prose-poetry, which is what the Sonnets effectively are, with the proper realism. Dinkova’s troupe proves themselves very capable. The stories they tell (monologues rather than actual sonnets) range from around ten minutes — Rene Rivera’s — to only a few, in the case of KJ Sanchez (Gabby Wolfe), a dream-haunted young woman surprised (and disturbed) to find herself “here,” because as a person of mixed race, she expected a different kind of afterlife. Death is not, perhaps, the great equalizer.
Playwright José Rivera gives producers license to choose and order monologues from Sonnets for an Old Century as they wish. Here, audiences are treated to a first monologue by Kevin Jackson (Victor Salinas), who relates a tale of father-son rivalry and daring escape that sounds remarkably like a modern rendering of the ancient myth of the inventor Daedalus and his foolish son, Icarus. Here, however, it is the longing for a father’s love that leads to destruction. Salinas very capably presents Jackson’s dilemma, but the grand architectural setting of the Universalist chancel can work against the deeply emotional story he is telling. Similarly, audiences may be led to expect further incursions into myth, when the stories that follow are by turns deeply realistic or disturbingly surreal. There’s no particular through-line here other than that articulated by characters at the beginning and end of the selected monologues, who establish a kind of litany. Director Dinkova divides these lines among various actors. Initiatory declarations, such as, “remember … your words go out to the universe, to be … recycled among the living,” foreshadow a final litany of various life “firsts” (in the script spoken by a character named Kiersten Van Horne). Some of these are obvious major events, such as “[t]he first time you watch birth,” and others seemingly mundane, such as “[t]he first time you get the dog to shit outside” or “[t]he first gray hair.” Taken collectively, the statements become a reminder that most lives are, in fact, full of little epiphanies but absent of any one decisive revelation — an idea affirmed by the final stage directions of the playscript: “No revelations come to them. No answers. No giant bolts of lighting…. Just a slow fade to black.”
Emphasizing the deep ritualistic roots of drama, Spooky Action Theater’s Sonnets for an Old Century reminds us that what we say or don’t say with our lives matters. That, in the words of the great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we have but one chance to “speak ourselves.” We’d better make it a good text.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Sonnets for an Old Century plays through June 25, 2023, presented by Spooky Action Theater performing at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($34.50 general admission, $5 off for seniors, $20 for students with ID) online.
The performance takes place in multiple spaces throughout the Universalist Church on three floors with stairs for access. Seating will be available in some performance spaces while others may require standing. The building is not handicap accessible.
The program for Sonnets for an Old Century is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks optional.
Sonnets for an Old Century
By José Rivera
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
Raghad Almakhlouf….Svetlana Efremova
Jared Graham….Sam Wellington
Lisa Hodsoll….Jessica Hecht
Jamil Joseph….Yusef Bulos
Jolene Mafnas….Michi Barall
Victor Salinas….Kevin Jackson
Kay-Megan Washington….Alena Dawson
Gabby Wolfe….KJ Sanchez
Special Video Appearance by José Rivera….Rene Rivera
Barrett Doyle, Shana Laski, Andrew Reilly….Guides
Barrett Doyle….Scenic Design and Videography
Mike Durst, Helen Garcia-Alton….Lighting Design
Stephanie Parks….Costume Design
Mark Williams….Projections Design
Holly Morgan….Production Stage Manager
Gillian Drake….Associate Producer