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Review: Historical Trauma is at the Heart of Burning Coal’s “Conversations I Always Wanted to Have”

Does racism (systemic or otherwise) perpetuate a legacy of trauma? That is the question at the heart of two of Dael Orlandersmith’s plays currently running at Burning Coal Theatre Company.

The plays, Until the Flood and Forever, both written by the Obie Award-winning playwright, are part of Burning Coal’s series, Conversations I Always Wanted to Have. And while both plays similarly hurl harsh truths into a virtual void, each one approaches its subject severally.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Orlandersmith to write Until the Flood. The play is a series of vignettes inspired by dozens of conversations Orlandersmith had following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When the play premiered in 2016, Orlandersmith performed all the parts. Last year, she reprised her performance at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which was filmed and later broadcast. In the Burning Coal production, Byron Jennings carries the weight of each character on his shoulders, admirably defying ethnicity, gender, and age. It is perhaps a not-so-startling snapshot of where we were then compared to where we are now, following the murder of George Floyd.

Prior to being commissioned for Until the Flood, Orlandersmith penned Forever, a semi-autobiographical, reflective piece inspired by her experiences at the famed Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In the Burning Coal Theatre production of Forever, Emelia Cowans-Taylor delivers an unapologetically raw and deliberate deep dive into Orlandersmith’s psyche.

What truly distinguishes these Burning Coal productions is the tonality of each. Director Renee Nixon’s heavy-handed approach to Until the Flood feels forced and teeters on preachy and jarring at times. The incisiveness of these monologues as they are written, performed by a capable and skilled actor like Jennings, can (and probably should) be presented without all the theatrical stage clutter.

Novice director Jordan Lichtenheld, on the other hand, seems to have taken a much more minimalist, collaborative, and organic approach to Forever, leaning into Cowans-Taylor’s life experience.  In fact, it is Cowans-Taylor’s genuineness that punctuates every layer of this character from the depths of dysfunction to forgiveness, making it easy for the audience, albeit virtual, to invest in her journey. A few awkward camera angles draw attention away from Cowans-Taylor, but those miscues can be easily forgiven. Here, all the design elements from the lighting to the scenery to the sound feel like they are working in tandem with the director, actor, and playwright, to propel the story forward.

Until the Flood and Forever represent the kind of profound, evocative storytelling in which Burning Coal Theatre Company excels. Both pieces speak to the historical ramifications of race, the legacy of oppression, and the ebb and flow of a nation divided.

Burning Coal Theatre Company’s productions of Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until the Flood” and “Forever” run through February 14th. For dates and times, visit https://burningcoal.org/ or the RDU on Stage Calendar.

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