Southern spells

A good play, suggests Tony Kushner in his 1995 anthology Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue, “should be overstuffed.” Memorably comparing well-constructed theater to lasagna, he writes that a work of theater “should have barely been rescued from the mess it might just as easily have been” and, at its best, “has a bursting omnipotence up its sleeve, or rather, under its noodles.” That’s an apt description for this tender, searing, funny, and thoroughly moving new piece by Terry Guest, which packs more humanity in its 95 minutes than many projects do over multiple acts. 

The Magnolia Ballet
Through 6/11: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, 773-697-3830, aboutfacetheatre.com, $5-$35.

For queer Black teen Z (Guest), it doesn’t take many rounds of begetting to connect himself to his enslaved Georgia ancestors—a lineage in which softness and vulnerability was, and in many ways still is, at odds with survival. Much of Guest’s story centers on its protagonist’s relationship with Black masculinity and the challenges of navigating his father Ezekiel’s (Wardell Julius Clark) emotional rigidity, but The Magnolia Ballet itself is pointedly not rigid. Rather, it gracefully bends. It bends in its narrative structure, in its gravity, in its timeline, and in its foggy, macramé fishing-net-draped set by designer Steven Abbott and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Blurring soliloquies, music and movement interludes, fantasy sequences, and realism, Guest creates a layered and fully realized pastiche of one queer kid’s journey to find his place in American society, his family, and his own body.

In many new plays, an ethereal, collage-like approach to storytelling can often feel scattered or indulgent, but in director Mikael Burke’s production for About Face Theatre, each seemingly incongruous piece fits together with all the contradictions fully intact. Part of that, I suspect, is the production’s superb use of music (eclectic sound design by Brian Grimm) and movement (choreography by Jenn Freeman), which viscerally convey elements of Z’s experience more directly than words alone could. In a compelling abstract movement sequence, for instance, we see a music-set pantomime of Ezekiel giving his son a haircut. It’s a gentle and warm bit of physical affection from father to son, man to man, never spoken of or alluded to overtly, that conveys everything audiences need to know about the father’s inner understanding of and desire for gentleness, inaccessible to him as it may be.

Similarly stunted in his ability to recognize and accept his own feelings (albeit for very different reasons) is Z’s white stoner classmate, Danny (Ben Sulzberger), with whom Z has built a friendship over video games and surreptitious blow jobs. While Z is crystal clear in his sexuality, it’s entirely possible that Danny is bi and more than likely will never need to come out. In a fraught and bleakly funny scene, the two wrestle and tickle homoerotically while Danny wears a family heirloom Confederate uniform, demanding to be called “Sir,” before Z turns to the audience with a deadpan understatement: “Being a kid was confusing.” Less confusing, he tells us, was his boyhood sexual awakening while watching D’Angelo’s early-aughts “Untitled” music video, perhaps the most influential gay coming-of-age artifact for millennials outside of Abercrombie shopping bags. “When you’re a child,” Z says, “you haven’t learned the parts of yourself you’re supposed to hide.”

For Z’s father Ezekiel, though, hiding has become so secondhand that he can’t seem to break out of it, even when it’s what he wants. In multiple moments, we witness Ezekiel wishing to reach out and establish a connection with his only son, but—frustratingly—he can’t quite soften himself for fear he’ll break. Across the board, The Magnolia Ballet is buoyed by a quartet of excellent and nuanced performances, and it’s a credit to Clark’s portrayal that a character capable of spewing homophobic venom toward his son is also capable of heartache and compassion (as well as biting humor and menace, doubling as Danny’s virulently racist white cop dad). 

As the Mitchell family bloodline made manifest, Sheldon D. Brown lends a vocal resonance and physical authority to the “ghost” element of Guest’s southern gothic ghost story. It’s a subtle, often literally backgrounded performance, but it’s integral to what works so well about the show, including Brown’s affectionate and emotionally available depiction of Z’s late mother and, just as interestingly, her thawing influence on Z’s dad. And as Z, Guest creates a rich, complicated character who is coming to terms with the prospect of leaving his Georgia home—a realization that feels less like freedom than coming untethered.   

Much of the often-produced theatrical queer canon can feel stuck in time, stuck in New York,  and stuck in a recurring handful of themes. One of the enduring successes of About Face Theatre, I’ve found, is the company’s consistency in bucking that trend by producing work that feels current and raw and relevant across the broad spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community. The Magnolia Ballet is another step forward in that tradition, one that had me thoroughly enchanted by its spell. 

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