by: Paulanne Simmons
Dead and Breathing is a 90-minute two-hander written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by Jonathan McCrory at the National Black Theatre. It features Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn Whitlock, a cranky old woman who has been in hospice for two years, and Nikkii E. Walker as her nurse, Veronika.
The play opens with Whitlock in the bathtub, facing away from the audience, as Veronika asks her to open her “happy flaps” so she can give her a good scrubbing. Then the doorbell rings and Veronika, after admonishing Whitlock not to do any crazy old people stuff, goes off to see who’s there.
While Veronika is gone, Whitlock gets out of the tub and tries to kill herself in various ways. Unfortunately, she is unable to open the pill bottles, and the cord on the hair dryer doesn’t reach the bathtub. Soon Veronika reappears, chatting excitedly about the gorgeous messenger she has just met at the door, and Whitlock informs her furiously that she wants to die. Veronika is delighted; this is the first real conversation they have ever had.
By this time, Veronika has made enough mistakes to lose her job and perhaps land her in jail. She has spoken inappropriately to a patient. She has left her unattended in a bathtub. She has not reported a patient’s desire to kill herself. But let’s go on.
Veronika and Whitlock are both African American. But while Veronika comes from a modest background, Whitlock is a millionaire. How she got this money we are never told. But she certainly knows how to use it.
While Veronika is off frying an omelette, Whitlock (who is now safely dried, combed and lying in her luxurious bed) calls her lawyer and tells him she wants to make Veronika her sole beneficiary. And when Veronika returns, Whitlock informs her that she will inherit eighty-seven million if she only agrees to kill her patient. Apparently, under the laws that govern this play, one no longer has to actually sign a will.
Veronika who is a devout, Bible-quoting Christian, at first refuses, but she is sorely tempted when she gets to thinking about what she could do with all that money. She’s also worried she might get caught, but Whitlock dismisses her fears with vague promises that her lawyer will take care of everything. Again, this play is governed by unique laws, which now do not include police investigations into obvious homicides.
This is pretty much the crux of the action. We learn a bit more about Whitlock’s rich miserable life and Veronika’s poor miserable life. Just when we’ve had enough of their bickering, there’s a surprising and unrelated twist. A generous interpretation would be that the author wanted to deepen or expand the meaning of the play. A less generous interpretation is that she just ran out of things to say and needed to find a new line of thought.
Dead and Breathing might have been bearable with even tolerable acting and direction. But these actors keep up such a steady flow of yelling, throwing and over-emoting, one is totally exhausted just watching them.
There’s very little believable in this play, so when the ending comes as another unlikely twist, it should not be very surprising. But it certainly is welcome. Dead and Breathing has been on life support for far too long.
Dead and Breathing runs through Nov. 23 at National Black Theatre, at the corner of 125 Street and Fifth Avenue, www.nationalblacktheatre.org.
Photos: Christine Jean Chambers