It felt like a momentous occasion when I attended the National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere of “The Magnolia Ballet, Part I” Friday at Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre. Written by Chicago-based, award-winning playwright, actor, producer, poet and teaching-artist Terry Guest, the play will later be produced by Alleyway Theatre in New York and Williamston Theatre in Michigan.
Adding gravitas to the occasion was the direction by Butler graduate and former NoExit Performance associate artistic director Mikael Burke, who also currently lives in Chicago. Considered an emergent director in the Windy City, Burke serves as the associate artistic director for About Face Theatre in Chicago, as well as First Floor Theater. He’s also the Head of the Directing Concentration for the summer training program of The Theatre School at DePaul University.
Exploring painful themes of race, homophobia and toxic masculinity, Guest’s play is about a queer Black teenager, his cold and distant father, and spirits that live with them in a house their family has lived in for four generations. Referred to as Southern Gothic, Guest’s play clearly illustrates how his aesthetic and sensibilities are informed by his native Georgia’s history and culture. Also evident are the influences of Southern writers such as Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor, all of whom he considers inspirations. Alternately funny, endearing and even shocking, Guest’s engaging play is replete with clever dialogue and both historical and contemporary cultural references.
Adroitly and sensitively directed by Burke, an artist on the rise, the production’s ensemble is quite strong. The cast includes Eddie Dean as Apparition, Andrew Martin as Danny Mitchell, Daniel Martin as Ezekial V, and Isaiah Moore as Ezekial VI (Z).
Turning in a particularly fine performance was Daniel Martin, who was thoroughly impressive in Summit Performance’s recent production of “Skeleton Crew.” In this play, he is an emotionally unavailable father whose verbal abuse of his son borders on cruelty.
Moore, who played the trusting, kindhearted and often-witty son, on the receiving end of his father’s constant bullying, was superb in a role, with whom many gay men, including yours truly, will identify and relate.
Successful at realizing Guest’s compelling vision was a Phoenix Theatre creative team that pulled out all the stops, utilizing extremely well its technical resources to fashion a true work of art. They included lighting designer Laura Glover, sound designer Willow James, set designer Inseung Park and costume designer Tony Sirk. Kudos to them all for conveying the magical essence of Guest’s fascinating and provocative tale.
When I mentioned previously that it felt momentous to be present on opening night of “The Magnolia Ballet,” it is because I know someday, I can say that I was there to witness theatrical history being made. Guest, who happens to be Black and queer, has written a play that confronts us with our prejudices and challenges us to strive for acceptance of those we consider “other.” He is also an important and critical voice for all Black and queer people and for anyone seeking an end to unequal treatment and oppression wherever it exists. I predict great things for Guest and see him becoming a major force in American theatre. With the premiere of “The Magnolia Ballet,” the writing is on the wall.
For tickets and information about “The Magnolia Ballet, Part I,” which runs through April 10, visit phoenixtheatre.org.