It’s a wonderful and rare thing in the theater when the exact right script, director, company, and moment come together. That wonderful, rare thing is even more remarkable when all of the aforementioned entities emerge from local talent.
Just such an extraordinary occurrence has emerged in Kalamazoo with “Ships, Shells & Chains,” Face Off Theatre Company’s current production, a special premiere in honor of Black History Month.
There isn’t a single show in Face Off’s three seasons that hasn’t honored black history, and that, too, is a wonderful (and unfortunately rare) thing. But “Ships, Shells & Chains,” an elegant original play by Kendra Ann Flournoy, a Western Michigan University Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting student, explicitly traces the journey of one African woman and the generations of African Americans and their experiences that emerge from that history, from 1839 to the present, from Africa to Georgia to Mexico to Michigan.
In a series of finely woven scenes linking characters and family, as well as themes of love, trauma and struggle, identity, ritual and connectedness — to each other and to the earth — with effective extended metaphors, the script itself is a tender and triumphant tapestry. And in the hands of the talented director Bianca Washington with an inspired cast, this production is evocative and moving.
Staged without fanfare in the basement of downtown Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church, it is the strength of the play’s language and the seven actors’ powerful storytelling ability that make this tightly crafted 90-minute show so impactful.
The actors each play several roles, and each scene is emotionally resonant, sometimes quietly so, and sometimes with a bang. Betty Lenzy is particularly natural and convincing; Deshawn King makes an excellent contribution to the ensemble; Charlotte Thomas and Arizsia Staton do extraordinary scene work together with high-valence emotion; Oliverliski Murphy Jr. is a force; Jamez Jordon’s range is impressive, particularly in terms of age; and Brandon Burnett’s intense vulnerability is admirable. Together, this ensemble is greater than the sum of its parts; individually and collectively their motivations and objectives are strong and clear.
One scene, in which Jesus appears as a woman with a task for an old man in Detroit not unlike that of Noah’s, was successfully staged as part of Theatre Kalamazoo’s New PlayFest two weeks ago. And yet as part of the larger play, it has a much deeper, more potent meaning.
However, the larger play is no work in progress. Kendra Ann Flournoy’s “Ships, Shells & Chains” very well may continue to evolve, but it’s a fully realized and magnificent work as produced by Face Off Theatre. It may honor Black History Month in a poignant way, but it thoroughly honors all of us, February or not, with its artistry and its excellence.
Ships, Shells & Chains
Face Off Theatre Company
First Congregational Church