There really couldn't be better news for theater artists and audiences seeking an alternative to more traditional fare. Memphis playwrights are emerging from the shadows in record numbers, and it seems like new performance spaces are opening on a monthly basis. U of M undergrad Nate Eppler's darkish comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses -- the most exciting and fully realized piece of work by a young playwright since Kirt Gunn (All Skate Slowly in One Direction) packed his bags and headed to NYC -- has been winning competitions left and right. Playwright and producer Jim Esposito, whose work has improved drastically in the last few years, opened his new performance space, a nice if acoustically troubled black box, on Marshall in January. Now, on Madison Avenue, just spitting distance from Esposito's Sleeping Cat Studio, Ekundayo, a young, fiercely determined mono-name, has opened Threads/The Curtain Theatre, a vintage clothing store that doubles as a tiny, track-lit theater in the round. It is perfect for showcasing chamber pieces like Ekundayo's I Remember Ghost, a linguistically exciting if ultimately redundant collection of three short plays about the creative impulse that are so depressing you'll want to take razor blades for subsequent wrist-slitting.
With only two rows of chairs ringing its tiny stage, the Curtain Theatre is intimate to say the least. It's so tight the management should reconsider its extremely annoying policy of letting audience members in after the performance has begun. As anyone can tell you, no matter how interesting a performance may be, if a moth is fluttering around in the lights every eye in the house will turn to the moth. It goes without saying that groups of latecomers are far more distracting for both the actors and the audience. Hang a sign on the door that reads, "You're late, don't even try knocking because we won't let you in. Come earlier tomorrow." If you afford tardiness, audiences will continue to take advantage of it and the problem will increase over time. It's not so much a personal hang-up as a proven fact.
Of the three short pieces that make up I Remember Ghost, the first, Simple & the 2Minute Ghost, is far and away the most satisfying. It comes on strong like an African-American answer to Sam Shepard's rockudrama Cowboy Mouth. Richly structured word riffs replace traditional dialogue to tell the story of Simple, a street-hustling trumpet player with only one song in his bag -- a song that plays constantly in his head and prevents him from learning new material. This is the "ghost" that haunts him and destroys all his opportunities for making a "bag full of money." As it stands, poor Simple has a hole in the crown of his money-collecting hat, a father with cancer, and a fine woman who is pregnant with his unwanted child -- all the elements for fine bone-crushing tragedy. Unfortunately, the playwright seems to suffer from the same malady as his protagonist. The play repeats itself often and in a way that does nothing to advance the action or enrich the theme. It becomes more and more overwrought until it's just a painful-to-watch crying match between Simple and Baby. Both Tony Anderson (Simple) and the singularly named Tara (Baby) make powerful emotional investments in their characters, and their work keeps things moving even as the beautifully worded piece slouches toward unwatchability. A word to the playwright: A hard wind can't blow all day. Being intense is fine but being gluttonous about it will turn audiences against you and fast.
The second piece, Green Bunny, Fluffy Dog, @ Poetry is also a verbal feast. Too bad it is hackneyed and pretentious beyond repair. It tells the tale of Ugly Diva, a young lady being medically treated because she is cursed by creativity (presumably a criminal offense). She has an imaginary friend (or possibly a schizophrenic voice dressed in black with a jauntily angled beret) who prompts her to make -- GASP! -- poems. The pain of being an artist -- and of being misunderstood -- is perhaps the most common theme taken up by aspiring young playwrights. It's almost mandatory first-play material, and you can't blame the tiger for falling into such a well-concealed trap. But the bottom line is that nine-and-a-half out of 10 times these plays are nothing more than so much self-mythologizing. Though Ekundayo has at least created an interesting scenario to communicate his sense of struggle, Green Bunny, Fluffy Dog, @ Poetry is no exception to the rule. These kinds of plays are the theatrical equivalent of a fry cook screaming about how much he hates his job while he's cooking up your burger. Even if it's true, most folks would just rather have the burger. Make art, people, don't whine about it.
The final play, The Stroke that Revived the World, is an effective tale of a grandmother who raises her grandson to be an artist and a creative thinker but dies while he is still a child. The young boy responds to her death with a storm of painting. In fact, he either paints his grandmother back to life or himself to death, it's hard to say. In many ways this is the most fully realized story of the night, but it leans toward the stinky cheese end of the theatrical spectrum. Again, fine, earnest performances by Morgan J. Fox (another burgeoning playwright) and Najiyyah Qaasim help the would-be fable along. Ekundayo's own performance as the narrator is troubling. He speaks in a booming, godlike voice that is completely comical -- and yet there is no comedy in the play. It's just a bad choice that makes cheesy things that much cheesier.
Complaints aside, Ekundayo is undeniably a gifted wordsmith and director who is still honing his craft. If he continues working in this direction and learns to temper his intensity with a bit of humor, he will someday amaze us all with the force of his vision.
Through March 3rd.