Review | benevolence: scary-powerful

Penumbra Theatre, through March 10

Darrick Mosley and Dame-Jasmine Hughes in BENEVOLENCE. Photo by Allen Weeks.

Difficult. Difficult, and presented with unrelieved intensity. This is an apt description of benevolence (playing at Penumbra Theatre Company through March 10). If you’re looking for feel-good entertainment, a sweet and undemanding play to watch while you digest a rich dinner, benevolence is not for you. Benevolence is sweaty, powerful, disturbing. Frightening.

The second play in playwright Ifa Bayeza‘s Emmett Till Trilogy, benevolence is set in 1950s Mississippi, a state (to quote MLK) “sweltering in the heat of oppression.” The first half concerns a white couple, the Bryants. The man, hulking and coarse, wants to avenge the insult to his wife by a “Chicago nigger,” (a reference to Till).

Note: the nigger-word is used with upsetting frequency in benevolence; this contributes mightily to the play’s creepy power. The word jumps out, with none of the lackadaisical forget-about-it casualness we’ve come to expect when we hear it. Its use sets our teeth on edge.

The second half of benevolence concerns a black couple, the Meltons, struggling to succeed financially in this small Mississippi town. But this struggle is nothing compared to the racist violence the Meltons face. “They shot him three times in the face!” “He was a decent man!” Beulah Melton has four children. They are unseen but still have tremendous presence. This leads me to an appreciation of the direction:

Benevolence uses disorienting multiple casting, a peripatetic story structure and weird scenic effects (the play is directed, forcefully and with great intelligence, by Talvin Wilks).

The acting is marvelous. The cast – Sara Marsh, Darrick Mosley, Peter Christian Hansen, Dame-Jasmine Hughes – are all experienced and extremely accomplished. They are in no way intimidated by benevolence (many actors would be) and they make the play work. For giving artists like this a chance to shine, Penumbra deserves great credit.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. John’s The Voice Of The Prairie has been performed 100 plus times and ditto Minnesota Moon and his adaptation of Sideways Stories From Wayside School. The Summer Moon won a Kennedy Center Award For Drama. John has won fellowships from the Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation and from The National Endowment For The Arts. Please visit his informational website.

 

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