‘What Will Happen to All That Beauty?’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival

A compassionate intergenerational saga of a Black family contending with HIV.

Donja R. Love bookends their intergenerational saga of a Black family contending with the effects of HIV, What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, with two passionate sermons. Opening the show, Rev. Emmanuel Bridges Sr. (Jerome Preston Bates) addresses the dynamic between beauty and sacrifice. Closing the show, his grandson, Manny Bridges (Jude Tibeau), preaches as eloquently of how beauty arises from embracing the fullness of one’s being. They are among the most stirring moments of the play, being produced as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Much of what comes in between focuses on the suffering inflicted by AIDS on Black people and their community. Love seeks representation not only for Black people who have died due to AIDS-related complications, he said in a program note, but also for the “softness, beauty, and love [of] my community.”

Toni L. Martin as Maxine and Jude Tibeau as J.R. in ‘What Will Happen to All That Beauty?’ Part 1. Photo by Seth Freeman.

In the first part of this two-part play, set in 1986–87, J.R. Bridges (also played by Tibeau), Emmanuel Bridges’ son, and J.R.’s wife Maxine (Toni L. Martin) are happily expecting a baby. Both are bisexual and in a somewhat open relationship. J.R. tests positive for HIV and begins to grow sicker. Maxine, deeply worried, maintains an at least surface cheerfulness and optimism for most of Part 1, self-medicating with alcohol as matters become more dire.

Having lived through the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis, I remember too well the panic of the era. Doctors (like the play’s Dr. Steinberg, played by Steve McDonagh) gave HIV-positive people a grab bag of medicines in a desperate attempt to slow the progress of the disease. They didn’t work. People were afraid to come near or touch HIV-positive people or anyone associated with them. (Maxine loses her job to this panic.) Politicians proposed keeping HIV-positive people out of the country, or even putting them in internment camps. HIV-positive men were denied transportation by some airlines. I had four friends die of the disease, and I saw the effect that had on those around them. The play ably recreates the fearful feeling of that time, something perhaps especially important for younger audience members who did not experience it firsthand.

J.R. joins a support group for Black poz people led by Abdul (Danté Jeanfelix), who becomes a close friend. Both were rejected by their families as they came out. The support group is an alternative to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the well-known group founded by, among others, playwright Larry Kramer), the focus of which they perceive as being too much on affluent white gay men.

While exposition at times slows Part 1, this portion of the play contains three indelible moments. In one, J.R. and Abdul, both naked, make love. This is a stunning example of how essential nudity can be to the meaning of a scene: two men, both poz, both sick, have a night to live once more in their bodies, bringing not simply pleasure but consolation, some of the “softness” Love values.

In the second, J.R. records a VHS tape of a message to his unborn son, telling him of his love and softly singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” music that repeats meaningfully later in the show. In the third, Maxine, having carried so long the weight of a pregnancy and her husband’s illness, explodes in a paroxysm of grief and (I imagine) post-partum depression. Emmanuel appears to offer a home to her newborn boy.

MJ Rawls (Eve), Jude Tibeau (Manny), and Keith Lee Grant (Reggie) in ‘What Will Happen to All That Beauty?’ Part 2. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The tighter Part 2, set 30 years later, features a group of HIV-positive people living in a ramshackle house in Jackson, Mississippi, including Manny, his severely ill partner Elijah (Jeanfelix), Reggie (Keith Lee Grant), an older man given to colorfully flamboyant outfits, and the younger Eve (MJ Rawls) and Terrell (John Floyd). Love chose the locale well: according to a 2017 New York Times story by Linda Villarosa, 40 percent of the gay and bisexual men in Jackson, most of them Black, were living with HIV, the highest rate of any city in the country.

Maxine arrives to serve as a caretaker for Elijah. Her kindness leads to another glorious moment. Aided by Matthew Webb’s perfect lighting, Maxine tenderly bathes the painfully ill Elijah, another superb choice of the use of nudity to make real the overwhelming emotional impact of the scene.

Having been raised as the son of Emmanuel and his wife, Manny does not know who his biological parents were. Without providing a spoiler, it is fair to say that a major reveal concerning the complex family relationships involved becomes the funniest moment of the show, losing none of its dramatic impact in the process. This leads first to conflict and then to a both literal and figurative dance of reconciliation among major characters. The suffering and sacrifice are real, but ultimately beauty cannot be denied.

Directing such a sprawling saga is no easy task, and director Malika Oyetimein keeps the flow of the play on track and gives all the characters the time they need to breathe and grow. The quality of the acting is high throughout. Particularly as Manny in Part 2, Tibeau creates a wonderfully complex character who, far from flawless, finds a kind of vocation in caring for others. Martin’s Maxine is the central character in Part 1 and a key character in Part 2, embodying the beauty of sacrifice and love that is at the play’s thematic center. She has two lovely pietá moments, with J.R. and then with Elijah, that are deeply touching. While the script does not develop some of the smaller characters in as much depth, they are important to represent the variety of people in the HIV-positive Black community and those with whom they interact, and the actors make distinct impressions in their roles.

The dominant feature of Britton W. Mauk’s set is an open framework of wooden slats —symbolizing, one might speculate, the brokenness of lives during the AIDS crisis — spaced to show a cyc, often lit in blue. It is a universal setting, not specific to any time or place. The lighting design appeared to be somewhat darker and more subtle in Part 2 than Part 1, and it effectively set the tone for the play’s culminating events. One slightly discordant note in the physical production was that in the 30-year interval between Part 1 and Part 2, Emmanuel and Maxine did not appear to have aged a day.

In this era of small-cast 90-minute one-acts, it is both ambitious and refreshing for a playwright to create, and a theater to mount, a longer, more detailed examination of the lives of a larger group of people over decades. CATF’s production makes that ambition pay off in a highly satisfying way, illuminating the lives of its characters and community with compassion and beauty.

Running Times: Part 1 approximately 110 minutes; Part 2 approximately 90 minutes. Neither part includes an intermission.

What Will Happen to All That Beauty? plays through July 28, 2024, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing at the Frank Center, 260 University Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV, in repertory with three other CATF plays. See the CATF website for performance dates and times. Purchase tickets ($40–$70) at catf.org/buy-tickets or through the box office, [email protected] or 681-240-2283. Note that Part 1 and Part 2 of the play are ticketed separately.

What Will Happen to All That Beauty?
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Malika Oyetimein

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‘Enough to Let the Light In’ in rep at Contemporary American Theater Festival (review by Deryl Davis, July 15, 2024)
What Will Happen to All That Beauty?’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival (review by Bob Ashby, July 8, 2024)
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