Amani loses her mother to pointless gangland violence when she is only three years old. Her father goes to prison for six years for bludgeoning his wife’s murderer with a hammer. As bleak as this purports, Amani’s coming-of-age tale is told with humor and pathos, complete with a denouement set in outer space.
a.k. payne’s Blooms, a ten-minute play about two women in love having a heart-to-heart before their shift at a grocery store begins, was one of the highlights of this season’s one-act festival at Ensemble Studio Theatre. And again with Amani, her forte is capturing the poetry in the language people use to profess their love, whether it be two lovers, or a mother and daughter, or a father and daughter. From one of the earliest moments of the play, when Amani and Smith, her father, are having a catch-up while he is still behind plexiglass in prison, we realize the love they share is limitless.
Denise Manning as Amani is totally believable as a 9-year-old who has had to grow up quickly without parents and her naiveté about love as she maneuvers through growing pains is touching. Her scenes with her father move from precocious to acutely heartfelt to ultimately switching roles when she has to lay down tough love right back at him. It is a performance layered with so many emotions all at once. Although the play is performed without an intermission, it is clearly broken up into three acts, with the second act culminating in a “I deserve to live” soliloquy for Amani that, as performed by Ms. Manning, is breathtaking in its scope.
Eden Marryshow as Smith is heartbreaking as the father, trying to be two parents to this girl who commands a lot of attention. Their conversations about boys are spot on. He is a man with a dream of escaping this Earth as we know it, building a rocket ship to take him and his daughter away from a plane that would rob him so violently of the love of his wife. His hangdog dejection when Amani tells him that people tell her the rocket made of wood will never fly is haunting – he has had his inalienable right to dream pulled away from him by his own daughter.
Mars Rucker as Dasia, Amani’s mother, is the superhero here…as the narrator at times, and in fantasy scenes, she paints the picture of what a wonderful mother she would have been had she lived. Probably one of the most poignant scenes in the play is the mother-daughter rite of passage of instruction in how to handle her hair. Ms. Rucker shares another break-out-your-tissues moment when Smith joins Dasia in the afterlife. It is an embrace that they will never break again.
Kai Heath, who also appeared in Blooms, is exquisitely centered as Kofa, a love interest before either of the girls even understands what love is. After all Amani’s failed attempts to find true love with boys, Kofa and Amani find each other when Amani is at a true crossroads. Ms. Heath’s portrayal is of a woman who has found her way already, yet vividly is complete anew with her new love.
Omari K. Chancellor has the thankless task of being all the young men in Amani’s life that take what they can get out of her and toss her aside when they’re done. There is a point in the play where he is ASOM (a series of men) that seems like a fast moving sidewalk in an airport. With the fast removal of a hat or a shirt to reveal another shirt underneath he goes through variations on a theme of emotionally abusive nameless young men somehow managing to make each horrifically unique. Elsewhere through the play he is Davion, Lamar, and Robert, all potentially right for Amani, but then they reveal their true colors. As Davion, he waits until the all-important prom night to destroy every hope and dream Amani has been raised to wish for. A testament to Mr. Chancellor’s commitment, we as an audience grow to hate him in every incarnation.
Director Josiah Davis has gently guided this cast through a moving journey. His particular attention to the art of touch – the way the actors engage with each other – serves this play so well. The design team have outdone themselves. Maruti Evans’ set design is brilliant – the audience sits on either side of the action placed in the backyard of Amani’s house. It is a totally reimagined take on the interior of Rattlestick, placing us in what appears to be only inches from the actors. The walls are lined floor-to-ceiling with what would appear to be inside the house and garage.
The four corners of the minimal acting space each contains a musician and his/her playing space. Lighting designer Marika Kent and projections designer Brittany Bland move us seamlessly from street confrontation to backyard to outer space quite seamlessly. Costumes, wigs and the hair design of Mika Eubanks are supportive of the simplicity the production promotes, but go all out for Amani’s and Kofa’s trip into space, rivalling George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic outfits for sheer intergalactic ingenuity.
Amani takes us on a young girl’s journey into adulthood. We watch her seek her own voice and her own dreams as she navigates finding a pure love, a love just like her parents shared. Bittersweet, as life often is, the journey can be as thorny as those prom night roses, but it is all a part of growing up and finding one’s own way.
Amani (through March 12, 2023)
National Black Theatre and Rattlestick Theater
Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission