In building this world, playwright Tyler English-Beckwith blends aspects of America’s slave-holding past, with dreams of a better life in space.
On a set that suggests a spartan, yet futuristic locale, four actors ( Taji Senior, Oktavea Williams, Kenah Benefield and Jeremy Rashad Brown) dressed in black overalls and work boots move in a way that suggests a step show. The effort feels immense. The gestures desperate. There is no joy. The actors sweat, bend, and pull as if they are an engine of some unseen machine and stopping could mean death.
When sirens blare, the fearful actors raise their hands in the air, cross their wrists behind their back, get down on their knees, and finally, lay on the ground as though put into custody. They repeat these movements until the sirens stop, then go back to work as if nothing happened. The scene is more disturbing because it appears routine, as though knowing the procedure for being arrested is simply one more task in the workday.
Two more characters enter the fray, played by Delanté Keys and Mae Rose Hill. As the other characters teach them to do the work, we learn that black people are fleeing cities like Memphis to reach settlements where they hope to work, be fed, and land a spot on the next shuttle to the Liberian Space Station, where the water is sweet, food is plentiful and black people’s freedom is guaranteed.
It’s up to the viewer to decide what’s true for the intrepid wannabe space travelers and what is simply a delusion that helps them make it through the day.
The characters in the play don’t have all the answers. They don’t even know if they will get to go to the space station. Much of the plays’ conflict centers on their beliefs about their futures, faith and purpose.
What is freedom? When does the struggle end? Why aren’t we valued?
English-Beckwith who co-directs the show with Matrex Kilgore, says audiences should come to the theatre expecting to work. Perhaps that’s because the world of TwentyEight makes the audience feel as anxious and desperate as the cast of characters who inhabit it. Many of their questions resonate in current black life. What is freedom? When does the struggle end? Why aren’t we valued?
One thing TwentyEight makes clear is that without our own ventures, shared determination and united efforts, the trappings of our enslaved past continue to be a possible future.
TwentyEight continues on stage at The Vortex through August 19, with post-show discussions August 12 and 18.