2023 Capital Fringe Review: ‘RiverShe Collective Arts: Queer Family Summer Sanctuary’ (3 1⁄2 stars)

A gender-and-ethnicity affirmation ceremony in the form of a music-poetry-and-sketch revue with elements of a religious service. Which is a lot.

This show’s announced ambition is both provocative and evocative: to be “a Queer Family Summer Sanctuary of interdisciplinary performance and music celebrating Indigenous+Black+POC+Queer heart, art and soul!” Capital Fringe labels the production’s genre “drama,” but it’s actually more of a gender-and-ethnicity affirmation ceremony in the form of a music-poetry-and-sketch revue with elements of a religious service. Which is a lot.

All the performers — musicians, poets, dancers, actors — are friends or members of RiverShe Collective Arts, a collaborative community founded by Nicole Oxendine, an Indigenous feminist artist, mother, creative catalyst, and producer. “Enjoy the Sanctuary,” Oxendine welcomed us as our priestess and guide, reading somewhat stiffly but with spiritual conviction from a script in a prop book.

Lending lively accompaniment to the performance I saw was La Marvela, a group of three musicians on drums, flute, maracas, and vocals. (Remaining performances will feature the musical group Amor y Luz.) At intervals, the sound system carried prerecorded readings of poems, some at reverential length, which seemed at a remove from the more engaging live action on stage. Yet the meaning in the poems could be striking, as in one that said darkly: “Happy don’t stay…the lie is you can have joy without pain…there is no workaround for pain and sorrow.” On a lighter note, another prerecorded poem was a Lesbian ode to pussy.

A through-line of exhortation and uplift was also evident, as in a text read aloud by Oxendine that urged: “Run for the truth…live like your hair is on fire…flex the muscle of your yes.”

The production values were generally unremarkable, but several costumes were quite spectacular: A brown-robed dancer wore a brimmed hat from which hung a tumble of excelsior mysteriously concealing her face. Richael Faithful appeared wearing a jacket in the brilliant colors of the Queer rainbow. Oxendine wore a tulle-layered ribboned dress in pastels of pink, blue, yellow, and rose red. And the pièce de résistance was the purple preacher-robe outfit worn by Black sideburned drag king Carmen d. Player, which they removed to reveal a glittering sequined suit in a Pentecostal Little Richard number (“You are worthy…you are Queer and holy!)

As co-directed by Faithful and Oxendine, the show overall had considerable awkwardness, as though not sufficiently rehearsed. But the Black trans Queer Faithful turned in the most jaw-dropping highpoint of the show when they appeared bare to the waist while another actor in mime costume took a marker to Faithful’s face and torso to indicate their heartbreaks and scars (among them, from top surgery).

“Blest be this body,” said Faithful. “I love this body. There is no ban, bigot, or policy that can change that.”

Running Time: 75 minutes (including talkback).

RiverShe Collective Arts: Queer Family Summer Sanctuary plays July 15 at 1:00 pm, July 16 at 4:30 pm, July 20 at 6:00 pm, July 21 at 2:45 pm, and July 23 at 7:00 pm at DCJCC–Theater J. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online.

Co-Directors & Producers: Richael Faithful & Nicole Oxendine
Stage Manager: Paige Washington
Lighting Designer: Isaac DeMarchi
Sound Engineers: Ryan Solomon & Alistair Edwards
Musical Directors: La Marvela (July 15 & 16) & Amor y Luz (July 20, 22 & 23)
Performers: Friends of RiverShe Collective Arts (Saida Agostini, Ayesha Ali, Poet Jodi Braxton, isaac demarchi, Richael Faithful, Yulong Jones, Nicole Oxendine, Carmen d. Player, Jessica Valoris)

Age appropriateness: Appropriate for Adults Only
Profanity: yes
Nudity: yes

The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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