The ensemble shines in ‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes’ at Woolly Mammoth

An exuberant production brought vividly to life by six talented and winning actors.

The world premiere of Vivian J.O. Barnes’ The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes lives up to its name in this searing examination of the costs of seeking athletic perfection and the consequences of comparing oneself to the perfectionists we idolize. But come expecting to be highly entertained too. The dancers zip. The dialogue zings (“The word pubes is officially banned from practice”).

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production centers on a dance team prepping for an all-important Homecoming half-time performance in a fictional HBCU (Historically Black College or University). The demanded outcome for the performance is non-negotiable. It must be excellent, effortless, and eloquent. But as Homecoming draws closer, it’s clear that the outcome is in doubt. The mood is tense. The rehearsal formation expectations are unrelenting. The pressure is crushing.

Kalen Robinson, Billie Krishawn, and Khalia Muhammad in ‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Our window into this subculture of HBCU life is vividly brought to life by an ensemble of six talented and winning actors. Each of them shines. Billie Krishawn’s Shanteé, who is dance captain and leader, is serious and sharp-tongued. She expects her orders to be followed. But Krishawn’s performance also reveals Shanteé’s heart of gold. She’s vulnerable too.

Sabrina Lynn Sawyer’s Kiera, idolizes megastar Beyoncé. She wrestles with wanting to be exactly like her, or her perception of who Beyoncé really is, and her own fears of inadequacy. Her interactions with teammates illuminate many of the complexities of Black female friendships. She also gives voice to many of the questions raised by the play, such as “What does Black sisterhood and femalehood mean?”

Lauren Fraites’ Aleyse demands our empathy as the “new girl” trying desperately to fit in, unable or unwilling to live up to the legacy of her mother and grandmother who were both former Sea Mink-ettes.

Kimberly Dodson’s Maya commands our attention with a shell of protectiveness and focus on her thesis, grad school applications, and fellowships to apply to. Her astonishing capacity to rebuff Shanteé’s pressure is breathtaking. Her insistence to be seen for who she is leads to one of the fundamental surprises of the plot when things start to go haywire.

Last but not least is the charismatic and captivating duo of Kalen Robinson (Racquel/Dionne) and Khalia Muhammad (Gabby/Nikki). The two of them are hilarious together spouting some of the most entertaining dialogue and set pieces of the show. I assure you, they did not consult AI to come up with their song title! And yet, Robinson’s earnestness is plain to see, as is Muhammad’s empathy and loyalty to her friend and the Sea Mink-ettes.

TOP LEFT: Lauren Fraites and Billie Krishawn (seated), Khalia Muhammad and Kalen Robinson (dancing); RIGHT: Kalen Robinson, Khalia Muhammad, and Billie Krishawn (seated); ABOVE LEFT (from top): Sabrina Lynne Sawyer, Kalen Robinson, Lauren Fraites, Khalia Muhammad, Kimberly Dodson, and Billie Krishawn in ‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes.’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

When calamity ensues (what an understatement!) perhaps from supernatural forces, the play goes deeper to confront fundamental questions about belonging, invisibility, self-sacrifice, and autonomy. Indeed, many more questions are raised than answered, and asking them here threatens to give away plot points, so I will not. Moreover, the role of the playwright is to raise questions so that we in the audience individually arrive at the truth and meaning of what we’ve witnessed.

Ashleigh King’s choreography is itself worth the price of admission. It’s athletic, sexy, sharp, precise, and graceful. For me, watching the varied physical Black female bodies move proudly and confidently was beautiful. And inspiring. Additionally, hats off to Tosin Olufolabi for music design and all of the eerie sudden loud noises. Kudos as well to the rousing Homecoming musical finale performed by the Homecoming Band: “TK” TromboneKing (Band Leader, Trombonist), Steve Belk (Trombonist), Eric Summers (Trumpet), Randy Hampton (Sousaphone), Travis Gardner (Drums).

Indeed, this outstanding production moves energetically under the visionary guidance of Obie-winner director Taylor Reynolds. The action never flags, even as characters spat and challenge one another. Could the play be slowed down a bit before the pinnacle to delve more deeply into one or more of the central questions? Spending even a little more time with these characters would be welcomed.

The principal set, by Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, is a realistically rendered bleacher high rise, which allows the actors space for group routines as well as individual vertical and lateral movement. This uncluttered stage also compels the audience to confront the emotion and tension of the story. We cannot look away. Less successful is the hidden compartment beneath the stadium grounds because it’s difficult to see its contours and interior except from the front of the house. Lighting Designer Minjoo Kim’s stadium lights augment the theme of visibility because — they are on through the duration — while secondarily enhancing the mystery embedded in the odd events the team experiences during practices. Danielle Preston’s costumes are spot-on. Her practice outfits perfectly match each team member’s personality and style.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes is both exuberant and sobering. It contains multitudes of meaning. In this Black History Month, it reminds us that all of our stories are important. Thanks to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for its production of this world premiere, and for reminding us again of the vital role theater holds in creating and celebrating community.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes plays through March 3, 2024, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($29–$82) can be purchased online, by phone at 202-393-3939 (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.), by email ([email protected]), or in person at the Sales Office at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.).

The program for The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes is online here.

Friday, February 16, 8 pm (Blackout Performance)
Saturday, February 17, 8 pm
Sunday, February 25, 2 pm

Wednesday, February 14, 8 pm
Thursday, February 15, 8 pm.

Saturday, February 17, 3 pm
Saturday, March 2, 3 pm

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all public spaces at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company except for two MASK-REQUIRED PERFORMANCES: Tuesday, February 27, 8 pm, and Saturday, March 2, 3 pm. Woolly’s full safety policy is available here.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes
Written by Vivian J.O. Barnes
Directed by Taylor Reynolds
Assistant Director, Fatima Dyfan

Shanteé: Billie Krishawn
Aleyse: Lauren Fraites
Maya: Kimberly Dodson
Kiera: Sabrina Lynne Sawyer
Racquel/Dionne: Kalen Robinson
Gabby/Nikki: Khalia Muhammad

For Aleyse / Kiera: Winter Cook
For Gabby / Raquel: Mahlet Gebreyesus
For Shanteé: Kalen Robinson
For Maya: Sabrina Lynne Sawyer

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez
Costume Designer: Danielle Preston
Lighting Designer: Minjoo Kim
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway
Sound Designer: Tosin Olufolabi
Stage Manager: Julia Singer
Hair & Wig Designer: Lashawn Melton
Choreographer: Ashleigh King
Casting: Danica Rodriguez

“TK” TromboneKing – Band Leader, Trombonist
Steve Belk: Trombonist
Eric Summers: Trumpet
Randy Hampton: Sousaphone
Travis Gardner: Drums

Woolly Mammoth to premiere Vivian J.O. Barnes’ ‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes’ (news story, January 6, 2023)


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