ABANDON (Theatre Exile): A Hopeful Show with Discomfort Attached
Trigger Warning: This show contains scenes of violence against queer people of color and language regarding abuse.
To what end are people owed second chances, and how do we struggle to make new connections that can help us right previous wrongs? Those are some of the heavy questions playwright James Ijames and the cast and crew are trying to explore in Theatre Exile's production of Abandon. While the production serves as a great representation of the play at this step of the process, there are a handful of script issues that could be fleshed out a little more to make the text meet with the production more succinctly.
Abandon follows the story of Luella (Melanye Finister), who has already lost her son, and Joshua (Jared Chichester), who has been thrown out of his house, as Joshua tries to break into Luella's house to return the wallet he had stolen from her earlier. What occurs in their brief time together is an achingly heartbreaking exploration of grief, loss, and how to survive being queer in religious families. That there are no clear answers throughout the piece only adds to the sense of realism and authenticity; these questions and topics are intense, complex, and usually don't have one simple answer or solution. What does come across however, is the human need for space, community and kinship, as Joshua and Luella form a bond that the hauntingly beautiful final tableau infers will continue to grow and blossom.
The play is chock-full of wonderful dialogue and sometimes hysterical back-and-forths between the characters. Ijames knows how to write characters that the audience immediately engages with, and Luella and her ghost son Gabriel (Brenson Thomas) are no exception. They have great back-and-forth scenes that run the gamut of emotions. The script, however, does two things that don't quite land as well. Firstly, the lack of a clear setting or time frame makes the play feel a little too uncertain, creating confusion for an audience who might be trying to piece together the timeline of events, which become a little muddled.
The second aspect that didn't land quite as well, and I am aware that this particular aspect is likely to be divisive, is the excessive violence at the end of the show. I am not one to say that all queer stories need to be happy-go-lucky, but i am curious of the choice to showcase such intense brutalization of a queer person of color in today's current social and political climate, where the LGBT community are under near constant attack. The show already showcases how society, and specifically his brother, dehumanizes Joshua as a queer person: we get a brief scene of him getting beaten by his brother early on, that is a stark juxtaposition between Luella and Gabriel. The violence of the final scene felt excessive in a way that I didn't think supported the overall thesis of the show.
(As a side note: I would ask that theaters announce content warnings during curtain speeches, as I believe not knowing there would be displays of excessive violence can be quite jarring for an audience, and triggering for others.)
Theatre Exile spared no expense in pulling together the production aspects of this show. The set and lighting design (by Sara Outing and Amanda Jensen, respectively) do a fantastic job of creating the world these characters inhabit. The set in particular makes Exile's space feel, at times, much larger than it actually is, while also being able to highlight the more intimate aspects of the show. The costumes (by Jillian Keys) look great, but also lack the specificity of a clear time period, which didn't aid the storytelling in that capacity.
Director Brett Ashley Robinson has assembled a masterful cast to present this work. Melanye Finister gives an amazing performance as Luella; she is able to straddle the humor and seriousness of the role with a grand authenticity that immediately warms you to her, and makes you want the best for her. Brenson Thomas also shines as her son Gabriel, bringing a captivating sense to this character that enhances every word he speaks. Of particular highlight are the few flashbacks to Gabriel's time as a bar performer, where Thomas gets to show off his fantastic vocal ability and natural charisma.
Jared Chichester and Carlo Campbell as Joshua and his brother Chris carry more of the intense dramatic material of the piece, and do so magnificently. Campbell in particular is extremely menacing as Chris, filling him with a chaotic desperation that is harrowing. Brett Ashley Robinson does a fantastic job at keeping the action of the piece moving, while also giving space for the more personal interactions. She clearly understands the piece deeply, and knows how best to elicit strong reactions from an audience.
All in all, Abandon is a fascinating piece of theater, and a wonderful examination of the human condition. It explores the idea of what to do when life presents you an opportunity to correct a wrong you've made in the past. While there is excessive violence that may be jarring or off-putting for some, the show as a whole succeeds in making you care about and invest in the characters on stage. When presented by an all-star cast, under the helm of an adept director, backed by a design team that gets it, Abandon shines as a great new world premiere from a wonderful author.
Abandon is on stage at Theatre Exile
(1340 S. 13th Street) from
April 27th thru May 21, 2023