One of humankind’s greatest gifts, self-awareness, is also one of its most troublesome attributes. When we observe ourselves, we observe others, and upon inevitable comparison we find differences; these differences provide fertile ground for fear and judgment. Racism is just one of those results; it is as old as the world itself yet it continues to be a fresh and persistent stain in modern times. Fortunately, the arts is just one avenue providing a balancing voice, and the world premiere of TÉA Artistry’s Being Chaka at the New Ohio Theatre raises three such voices from playwrights Tara Amber, Chuk Obasi, and Nalini Sharma.
Being Chaka centers around 16-year-old Chaka (Kahiem Rivera, Black) a new student at East Prep High School; his classmates are a feisty girl Kunzang (Amber, Asian), and brother/sister Ethan and Maddy (Colin DePaula and Annie Hartkemeyer, respectively, White).
Faculty include teachers Annalisa (Joy Kelly, Black), Gunnar (Chuck Montgomery, White), and principal Ms. K (Amanda Marikar, South Asian).
When Ethan and Maddy’s mother Caroline (Joey Brenneman) writes a letter to the New York Times complaining of the school’s formation of White/non-White affinity groups, conflicts arise between the students and faculty as well as from Chaka’s mother, Inaya (Miriam Tabb).
Existing on an entirely different plane and visible only to Chaka are two ghosts, Willy and Purilla (Jae Jackson and LaWanda Hopkins, Black), whose unjust death of their infant child generations earlier have left them wandering the earth. Chaka struggles to understand the racism from Willy and Purilla’s past and how it impacts his own experience in the present.
There’s no shortage of race-related storytelling in today’s theater and film arenas, and it takes a special entry to become seen among the offerings. Being Chaka is one such play; thoughtful, sensitive, and earnest, it weaves an exploration of racism throughout its distinct and intriguing characters, with compassion and without a heavy hand.
Among the many ideas the script posits is the question of whether a person needs to own the generational trauma of those who came before. When Chaka considers how he’s going to deliver his history homework assignment, he ponders:
…what’s the history I’m telling? Is it really mine? What am I supposed to do with it? It feels different, me trying to answer all that because the furthest I go back to is slavery, and everything since that is defined as trauma. So…is that who I’m supposed to be? Do I even get a say? ‘Cause the fear’s always there. Well, it’s in this country’s DNA.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Rivera (Chaka) and playwright Amber (Kunzang) give strong and passionate performances, and DePaula and Hartkemeyer’s portrayals of the coddled, middle-class white students Ethan and Maddy are sincere and well-rounded.
Tabb gives an excellent performance as Chaka’s mother, genuinely imperfect and loving. Brenneman provides three-dimensionality to her antagonist role of Caroline, a part which would have come across as just another flat “Karen” in the hands of a lesser actor. Kelly, Montgomery, and Marikar each provide rich and meaningful performances, standing tall for their characters’ fierce principles.
The direction by Vieve Radha Price and Chuk Obasi is spot on; they have shaped the scenes for maximum impact, have coached the actors to listen intently to each other, and have staged the scenes inventively, both for and amidst the audience members. The space and production could have used some amplification, to ensure not a single word of this rich story is lost.
Being Chaka is a thought-provoking, uniquely told story that gives a fresh coat of paint to the anti-racist theater genre.
Being Chaka (through May 27, 2023)
New Ohio Theatre and TÉA Artistry
An Archive Residency in partnership with IRT Theatre
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, Suite 1E, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.newohiotheatre.org/programs/vieve-radha-price-chuk-obasi/
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission