by Cathy Hammer
Now in its third year, the boutique Broadway Bound Theatre Festival shines the spotlight on emerging playwrights. This year’s lineup of 18 carefully selected productions and three staged readings has been moved uptown to Theatre Row, within blocks of famed Times Square. The environment provided by working in an established Off-Broadway venue is a great fit for BBTF’s mission to encourage playwrights to self-produce. The highly collaborative process, which includes feedback elicited from three different audiences, is intended to supply the playwrights with the tools necessary to take their developing work to the next level.
On tap this past weekend was the promising Dear Ms. Kitt, the first one-act play by Canadian actor/playwright CS McDonald. Divided into thirteen sections separated by musical snippets, it’s an emotional rollercoaster that ends on a surprising downbeat slope. Nina (Vanessa Lynah/Auberth Bercy) has returned home to receive her share of her mother’s estate. Twelve years ago, she had run away to Berlin in order to pursue a career as a musician. She left her newborn baby, Rose, (Auberth Bercy/Vanessa Lynah) to be raised by her family including her warm Uncle Devon (Melvin J. Cox). Now treated as a stranger by her daughter and frustrated by the turns her life has taken, Nina continues to indulge in selfish and destructive behavior until she learns that her mother stipulated she’ll be unable to inherit unless her parental rights are restored by the court. Recognizing Rose’s singing talent as a reflection of her own, she attempts to bond with her child, but she repeatedly falls short of her good intentions. The Ms. Kitt of the play’s title is the divine Eartha, a symbol of breakthrough black female talent that may have been lost on the primarily young audience. It would have been helpful to Ms. McDonald’s stated goal of establishing Nina as a sympathetic figure if Kitt’s metaphoric presence as a role model had been given more stage time and clarity.
As directed by multidisciplinary artist Louis Devaughn Nelson, Dear Ms. Kitt is a work of social commentary as filtered through Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. McDonald is credited as a composer while Mr. Nelson is referred to as the conductor. Actors — clad uniforms of white teeshirts, faded jeans and suspenders — are observably warming up like dancers when the house opens. The set resembles a site specific art installation with a clothesline to which is clipped mementos of Nina’s journey strung across the front and the door and window represented by red masking tape on the walls. The action is heavily choreographed with the actors returning to position at the start of every new beat. The removal of a scarf takes over a minute, the pouring of a glass of water is accomplished with arms in fourth position, and a container of pills is used as a percussion instrument. Sound effects are delivered onstage by performer Phillip Pineno.
Given that the shared love of music is seemingly the only thing holding this family together, many of these creative flourishes fit the needs of the script. Other creative choices are a distraction from an already complex mother/daughter relationship. Literally experiencing the same old song and dance becomes a bit tedious. Having the two actresses switch roles midway through the play left most of the audience perplexed. While it stirred some empathy to envision the mother as her younger self at a crossroads, it also seemed to imply that her daughter would make the same mistakes, a fate far more pessimistic than is apparent in the dialogue. It will be interesting to see in which direction Ms. McDonald takes her work next.
Broadway Bound Theatre Festival — Off-Broadway at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street near 9th Avenue). Runtimes are 60-90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $27.25 and can be purchased at https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Broadway-Bound-Theatre-Festival-2019 and by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200. Tickets are also available at the Theatre Row box office. Performances continue through Sunday, August 25 See https://www.broadwayboundfestival.com for the complete schedule.