Rachel Atkins’s new play Black Like Us name checks West Side Story and Show Boat, but the work it perhaps owes the most to is Imitation of Life, another examination of the cross-generational implications of a black woman’s decision to pass for white. Annex Theatre presents the world-premiere production of this ambitious play that jumps back and forth through time, from 1958 to the present day in Seattle’s Central District.
At times, Atkins’s writing can feel alternately too didactic or too unfocused. Some dialogue strains to include historical context, particularly about the gentrification of the CD, while other scenes meander on and on before ending and jumping to another point in time, some crucial connective tissue missing. The unfocused elements of the play aren’t done any favors by John Clark’s elaborate set design, which requires long turnovers between the many scene changes and results in a lot of dead air.
That said, when it hits the sweet spot, Black Like Us is a passionately realized look at racial identity and the ways we associate with and separate ourselves from the people in our lives.
The play opens in 1958 with its most dynamic character pairing — Florence (Chelsea Binta) admits to her darker-skinned sister, Maxine (Dior Davenport), that she’s decided to pass for white, marry an Italian man who doesn’t know about her racial heritage, and accept “an easier life.” The decision is accompanied by burned bridges; she told him her family was dead — how else is she going to avoid questions?
More than 50 years later, three sisters (Alyson Scadron Branner, Lindsay Evans, McKenna Turner), stumble upon the truth about their grandmother Florence, eliciting a wide spectrum of reactions. Does this change everything or nothing?
The three eventually get in touch with Maxine’s granddaughters (Marquicia Dominguez, Kia Pierce) in a scene that director Jose Amador mines for a wealth of cringe comedy. Branner is particularly wince-inducing as the oblivious, wannabe hip mom who asks questions like, “Were any of our ancestors slaves?” and opts for James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” as her new ringtone.
Black Like Us is at its best in scenes where Florence and Maxine reconnect throughout the years, decades passing in between each meeting. Davenport makes the mostly sublimated anger at her sister’s betrayal palpable, while Binta’s emotional vulnerability is striking. There’s deep pain and deep love binding the characters, made all the more real by two strong performances.
Black Like Us definitely feels like a play that’s still finding its feet. Its chronological back-and-forth can halt momentum, especially with the set design as fragmented as it is, and there’s at least one character here that’s less than essential. But something tells me we’ve hardly seen the last of this often wonderful work.
Annex Theatre’s production is on stage through March 1. Tickets are available for purchase online.Powered by Sidelines