Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: Dancing To Be the Queen

By Ed Malin

All those who dream, dream big. It may be the annual Dance Hall Queen of Pittsburgh championship, where "America" votes remotely, but please don't assume that this will be an edited, pasteurized TV show starring female simulacra in whom one can find nothing to sympathize. Oh no no no. In Amina Henry's new play Ducklings, directed by Christopher Burris, the genuinely interesting drama as well as the twerking, wining, etc. are all live.
Spider (Cole Taylor) is the hustling host of the Dance Hall pageant. He begins by telling us that his chief inspirations are Darwin, Scarface and Wall Street (circa 1987, dir. Oliver Stone). Throughout, he will remind us that "greed is good" and the contestants will wrestle with this assertion throughout. Spider does private video interviews with each of the four finalists. The returning champion, hoping for her third straight victory, is the meretricious Rihanna T. (Victoria Wallace) from Utah. She cultivates her sex appeal among her internet fan base, refers to most other women as "bitches" and "haters", and plans to launch her new lip gloss line using her forthcoming prize money. For a long time, she and Spider (who calls her Ri-Ri) have been dating in secret. Spider assures her she will win again this year and asks her to say she loves him. She sees such a request as a tool of male control, and does not oblige.  Rihanna P. (Khalia Davis) is an earnest young woman from Michigan.  She wants to change the world, and is clearly in love with her boyfriend, Lester, an entrepreneur whose work is best not discussed. Rihanna P. uses the adjective "bou-geosie" to refer to salad. Bunny (Katchana Agama) is a young, single mother.  Her son has cancer. She has sewn leopard shorts for her performance and is energized to change her life. Donna (Cristina Pitter) is a Jamaican-American librarian. She returns to the contest after Ri-Ri disrupted her routine last year. She vows to win on merit as well as for being beholden to no one. Her parents kicked her out, and she is conscious of being full-figured, all of which she declares makes her independent and gives her the will to fight for a down-payment on her dream house.
photo by Ed Forti
Upon arrival in Pittsburgh, Spider and his special guest judge, Tom (Quilan Arnold) partake of all the I.H.O.P. has to offer while the ladies socialize (except for Donna, who finds Ri-Ri repulsive). Rihanna P. brags about Lester and advocates a general type of revolution.  She and Ri-Ri finally recognize Bunny from her appearance on the Maury Povich show. Even after Maury proved paternity, the father of her child still left her.  Apart from Donna, who will not answer questions about men, the ladies seem trapped by their relationships.  Ri-Ri is testing Spider to see if he'll stay away from the other contestants this time.  Bunny, who is using Spider to try to win, keeps silent and acts the part of the gal pal with Ri-Ri.   The night before the big event, Donna discovers that someone has burned her costume in her hotel bathtub.  Thankfully, she determines to perform in her thong and fishnets.  I am grateful for the dances that everyone, even the ultra-silent, sunglasses-wearing Tom, deliver. Hats off to Joya Powell for the choreography to suit each personality, and to Andy Evan Cohen for the dancehall sound design.
I won’t give away the result of the dance battle.  It’s much more than a contest.  It’s about how hard it is to get to a position of wealth and control over your life.  It’s about women whose opinions are strong and not at all diminished by the power of sexual expression which they possess.   For these hard-working characters there are the joys of eating slim jims and doing what regular people do, which Christopher Burris’s direction brings into sharp focus.  For me, there was the happiness of a linear, unedited story, something which reality shows have tried to take away.  In the scenes when the camera is off, we get to hear what the characters would say next.  I love the many ironies, such as Spider’s great appreciation for “Wall Street”, the film based on the lives of crooked businessmen famous for their “convictions”.  Donna’s statements on the anti-colonial, pro-Black roots of Jamaican dancehall and the extra struggles of those with a “thick” body type are very apt. There are times when I was tempted to side with each of the contestants.  I wasn’t expecting to agree with Ri-Ri on anything, but that is the beauty of this play.  Of particular note are the scenes where she tests her man (using words whose precise meaning can’t be found in any dictionary) and it all makes dramatic sense. Sabrina Bianca Guillaume’s costumes speak volumes about female power.  The hair and shoe styles also go a long way to express the strivings of these ladies. Jason Fok’s lighting works well within the silver-foiled performance space (JACK, in Clinton-Hill, Brooklyn) to make the dance scenes larger than life.