Now that The Public Theater’s 2019 revival of the late Nzotake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf has been critically acclaimed once again, The Negro Ensemble Company is reviving her only dialogue play, a photograph / lovers in motion, in a new version. Originally produced at The Public Theater in 1977 as a photograph / lovers in cruelty, the play was later revised and renamed for a 1982 production at the Houston Ensemble Theatre. The new version adapted and directed by Ifa Bayeza, the playwright’s sister, makes the play more of a choreopoem like Shange’s other plays and shifts the focus from the photographer Sean David to Michael, a female poet and dancer, adding poems for her to recite. The two titles of the play are still applicable as according to the director the relationship between Sean and Michael is both a duel and a duet.
The play is both dense and complex with colorful characters who are three dimensionally drawn, although most of them are damaged people acting out what has been done to them as children. Set in the late 1970’s, the play depicts San Francisco at the tail end of the Black Arts Movement which author Shange was part of: Sean David, an aspiring photographer; Michael, a female poet/dancer; and Claire, a model. Also in their orbit is Nevada, a rich attorney from an upper crust family who loves Sean, and Earl, another attorney and Sean’s best friend from the school days, who has just broken wit Claire when she became enamored of Sean.. While Sean treats his women abominably, Michael, the most together of his women, Claire, a gorgeous nymphomaniac, and Nevada, a very successful lawyer who supports him financially and feels entitled to his affections, keep coming back for more.
We very quickly realize that Sean has very low self-esteem and has no idea how to treat women as a result of what he saw of his abusive father. It is Michael who knows who she is and tries to instill in Sean a sense of worth in himself, his work and his heritage. Sean admires French novelist Alexandre Dumas who was biracial but he has not attempted to make his mark in the art world, for fear of failing. Earl champions Nevada’s case even though he loves her himself but gets little thanks for it from Sean. Although Sean appears to have chosen Michael over the other women, the others refuse to believe that he is discarding them.
While the play at times seems overheated in the characters’ interlocking relationships, the energy and passion of the actors help carry it along. Directing her first play, Bayeza has obtained fascinating and full bodied performances from her cast of five, but her technique and blocking still seem somewhat rudimentary. The choreographed portions from Leslie Dockery are well incorporated into the play. However, Chris Cumberbatch’s extremely wide but minimalist set undercuts the bohemian milieu and the staging. On the other hand, the lighting by Melody A. Beal creates atmosphere of its own. The original moody jazz score by David Murray also helps generate the right ambiance in this diffuse story.
As Sean David, Adrain Washington’s brooding presence and muscular physique go a long way to making him a charismatic though flawed character. Imana Breaux as the poet and dancer Michael is a woman who knows her own goals and what she will not put up with from any man. She is convincing as both dancer and poet and her independence from men saves the play from a possible charge of being misogynistic towards women due to its chauvinistic hero and fawning heroines.
Marc Deliz makes Earl a very conflicted character, always playing second fiddle to his more confident friend Sean. As the model Claire who is very promiscuous, Mystie Galloway gives her an air of glamour as well as air of arrogance. Over the entire plays hangs the baleful influence of Nya Bowman’s Nevada, cultured, sophisticated, haughty, imperious and entitled and willing to be servile to the abuse Sean heaps on her. Designer Katherine Roberson has done a terrific job defining the characters by their costumes from Nevada’s elegant and chic business ensembles, to Michael’s colorful bohemian garb, to Claire’s glitzy designer outfits, to Earl’s formal suits and preppy look.
The revival of Ntozake Shange’s photograph / lovers in motion does not suggest San Francisco but the East Village just outside of Theatre 80 St. Marks which may make the play seem more real to New Yorkers. Creating a community of people who love and fight with each other, the play is engrossing in its complicated psychology and entangling alliances, if a bit too long. While Ifa Bayeza’s production for The Negro Ensemble Company does not solve all of problems posed by the play, it makes a strong enough case for the play’s rediscovery.
a photograph / lovers in motion (through February 29, 2020)
The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-866-4111 or visit http://www.ovationtix.com/tras/call/34599
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission