A person makes vital individual choices every day. A woman with alcoholism in her family abstains from drinking when out with friends. A man puts a seat belt on after getting in the car for his morning commute. These decisions protect their choosers, and they seem logical, even secondhand in practice. It is much harder to make choices based on your partner’s needs, especially when those needs don’t directly affect their safety or impact everyday life. In Loy Webb’s “The Light,” a bracing world premiere produced by The New Colony, a seemingly minor choice eats away at a couple’s relationship, only because one half of the equation cannot understand the choice from the other’s point of view.
Rashad (Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr., passionate and slyly hilarious) has special plans for his anniversary. He is going to propose to his partner Genesis (Tiffany Oglesby, determined and riveting), a school principal who spends her days inspiring students and supporting her firefighting, single father boyfriend. Next, he will whisk her off to the concert of her dreams. There’s only one problem; one of the musicians performing that night writes songs that denigrate women, and Genesis refuses to support his work by attending the concert. Rashad feels like using the tickets won’t reflect on either of them morally, while Genesis reveals that the musician is a known abuser; she served as a confidante to one of his victims in college. The two must resolve what they are willing to accept for one another, as a celebratory evening shades into something darker and more dangerous.
Webb’s script builds a beautiful relationship worth rooting for, especially in its opening moments. Rashad and Genesis are both invested in their work and each other, and their back-and-forth comfortable banter about chores and raising his daughter ground them in a reality we all recognize. Simple moments, like Genesis’ compulsive folding of an old blanket, or a funny story shared about Rashad’s daughter demanding he wear a protective yarn bracelet, gain resonance once their argument about the concert heats up. Their inability to agree on a choice comes from understandable human behavior, and neither character is ever painted as a villain. Their failure to communicate is typical of all couples, but Webb spins a simple fight into a hard-won examination of how impossible it is for men and women of color to experience joy, to even exist in our contemporary society, or receive proper support from one another. Rashad points out that this musician advocates for men who are routinely brutalized by the police, while Genesis pleads — in the most haunting line of the play — that women of color should be worth marching for, too, and that no one has ever marched for her.
Director Toma Langston manages the tone of this production beautifully. At its heart, “The Light” is a romance, and Langston encourages each actor to turn on the charm, particularly when they zing one another. Sincerity is essential in order for the crumbling of their easygoing dynamic to matter, and the actors don’t disappoint in that department, either. Freelon is a powerhouse as a man negotiating his self-worth in regards to his crushed collegiate dreams; he understands the value of his life with Oglesby, but can’t help falling back on defensiveness when challenged. Oglesby carefully controls a panic attack throughout the back half of the play, and her angry despair at learning her partner’s divisive views is palpable. She keeps secrets of her own, and her inability to share with Freelon makes her a frustrating yet human and heartbreaking protagonist.
John Wilson’s scenic design engulfs the entire playing space, including the audience. The action takes place in Genesis’ apartment, and Wilson sets a bookshelf just past a row of risers, and an exit near another. The audience ends up with a close-up view of the argument, as if you are sitting right next to Rashad and Genesis, giving the story an extra punch. Wilson also lines the apartment walls with beautiful paintings of luminaries and activists, such as Nina Simone and Janelle Monae, linking to the characters’ discussion in a clever way. Sound designer Antonio Bruno and lighting designer Cassandra Kendall work together to create a joyous dance moment for the couple early on that the audience longs for by the play’s end; the dance highlights how important music is to them both.
Late in “The Light,” Rashad argues that he can’t help but make the choice he plans to make. This comes minutes after Genesis has pointed out that we all makes deliberate choices to help ourselves everyday. It’s much harder to make a choice that will help someone we care about, when we can’t see their point of view. Which is why, in the play’s closing moments, the audience is riveted watching Oglesby picking up and putting down a blanket, struggling with whether or not to accept what Freelon has offered her. Sometimes, the hardest, bravest choice of all is just letting someone in.
DIE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Bracing, beautiful examination of how we choose to love now.
Show: “The Light”
Company: The New Colony
Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)