Since April, several major Off Broadway venues have reopened with clever solutions for pandemic theatergoing. Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s novel Blindness was a sound and light show performed at the Darryl Roth Theatre with British actress Juliet Stevenson heard on tape. Signature Theatre reopened with Lynn Nottage’s The Watering Hole, an installation of eleven dioramas, videos and audios.
Now New York Theatre Workshop has returned with Whitney White’s Semblance which turns out to be a film experience on two giant screens with the theater having been renovated to accommodate social distancing: the theater’s previous seats have been covered over with a luxurious new Astroturf flooring with chairs arranged in pods of two and four. The screens stretch across the length of the space (rather than the former stage across the width) for maximum distancing between patrons. Ventilation and air filtration systems have been updated to comply with Covid requirements. Audience members must show IDs and proof of vaccination or negative Covid test and masks are mandatory for all attendees.
Written and directed by White who is the Obie and Lily Award winning director of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord (WP Theater) and What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Public Theater, BAM Fisher and Playwrights Horizons), a NYTW Usual Suspect and former NYTW 2050 Fellow, among other impressive credits, Semblance asks the question: in your everyday life, how do you encounter Black women? What do you see and what do you assume? Nikiya Mathis plays seven women from all walks of life, six of them depicted in various jobs and careers and each in her own setting. The women address us directly: a line worker in a salad take-out restaurant, a nanny and caretaker with her charge in Prospect Park, a chart-topping artist preparing for a music video, an unemployed mother getting her nails done in a salon, a public figure such as a politician about to be interviewed on a news program, a bus driver on her run on an MTA bus, a medium to low level consultant in an office, and finally the actress herself as she removes her makeup.
We hear the women’s thoughts as they go about their jobs interacting with the general public, both Caucasian and Black, and their thoughts about us watching them. They tell us how they feel about their jobs which in many cases are confining, in others require special handling in dealing with the white establishment, as well as what their experiences have taught them about life in our civilization. They all wonder if we see them and what we see. Mathis demonstrates her versatility playing seven women and the work has been expertly filmed by its production staff. The only quibble is that the text is probably preaching to the converted, though in this time of Black Lives Matter it cannot hurt to be reminded of the fact that many people in our society are invisible.
The clever uncredited editing has the visual component sometimes repeated on both screens, at others stretched across both, and at still other times showing two different images or perspectives side by side. Jess Coles’ photography is sharp and clear as is the projection design by Stefania Bulbarella and the installation sound by consultant Phillip Scott Peglow. Oona Curley’s production and lighting design could not be more realistic in setting various locales. Mathis has been tremendously aided by the costume design by Qween Jean and the hair and wig design by Dhairius Thomas in creating seven women so quickly. The original music has been composed by Jjjjjerome Ellis with additional composition by Peter Mark Kendall.
A kind of one woman play for seven characters, Semblance beautifully makes its point without hitting its message – or us – over the head. It allows the women to speak for themselves in seven different voices. While a stage performance might require more than one actress due to what would be a great many quick changes, this film version has a tour de force performance by Nikiya Mathis who adds to her impressive résumé which also includes Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays, Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew, Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar and Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, among others.
Semblance (at NYTW through August 29, 2021; streaming through October 24, 2021)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.NYTW.org
Running time: 45 minutes with no intermission