Esai’s Table at JAGfest: a reading of a reading of a play
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT
FEBRUARY 9TH, 2018
Above our stage in Briggs Opera House, there is an exposed lattice of dark metal bars, spotted with spotlights. Those lights collect into a locus onstage, where the actors will soon stand and sit asynchronously. Five chairs are in a row, non-identical but made of the same deep-dark wood with goldish undercarriages. Note-stands from which actors will take direction are adjacent but unaligned, tailored to each person.
Chanté Mouton Kinyon, a lecturer at Dartmouth, sits as our narrator at the far left. Actors Broderick Clavery, Michael Oloyede, Cliff Sellers, and Brandon Green spread out to the right. Green, who plays a character and sensibility named Esai (pronounced like East-Side with a silent ‘t’), is the first to speak after Kinyon sets the scene. He acts as a guide for the three young Black men beside him. His first lines are: “There’s food if you’re hungry. Yes, I’m talking to you!” Esai is a nurturer.
Multiple settings are superimposed on this dreamscape, brought together by people from geographies that are both disparate and dialogical. Even when actors stand in place, the narratives they convey are moving. Esai’s Table reminds me of Barbershop Chronicles, a barrier-bending musical that brings Black diaspora into a time-and-space-traversing room. Later that night, playwright Nathan Yungerberg says his play is “an in-between place… a non-place place.”
I won’t spoil this play because I want you to experience it one day, if you haven’t.
Instead, I’ll share bits that made me misty-eyed.
Some expect staged readings of plays to be airy bites of the ‘real deals’ (‘real deals’ being full-production stagings with all the gaud).
This reading was very much its own thing. It had many reimaginings of ‘God’. It was filling.
It was frustrating. You couldn’t just sit there and not feel and scribble notes for your article in the semi-darkness. The play rumbled and caught in your throat. A character told a poem about his auntie who spoke with spirits, was misnamed, and was an angel. Actors who were and weren’t their characters jumped (at us). Actors were not stuck to their stands. Trauma relived and rippled from their bodies. This dreamscape, though nectary, was at times nightmarish, like many Black realities.
A touching refrain in the play was the characters’ (and actors’) efforts to get into Black femininity -- to actually enjoy and embody it. In one scene, Michael (portrayed by Oloyede, who shares his first name) showed David (portrayed by Clavery) how to sound like a mama. Esai, their guide, showed David how to look like a mama, how to move and hold his hands on his hips. David tried again and again until his voice had a fitting lilt, and his hips a fitting tilt. His ability to embody femininity was a cause for celebration in this world.
The post-performance discussion felt raw. I think the play made people tender. I’d heard people around me sniffling and clearing their throats, clearly crying. There was tension as people grappled with conflicting urgencies. Some audience members wanted to connect the play to broad socio-political patterns -- to cyclical violence against Black people. Others, including the writer and director of this play, were aware of these patterns, but wary of the work being so pathologized that we lost our connections to individual, fleshed-out characters (who are more than flesh). Yungerberg said, “I wrote this and tried to let everything be as expansive as possible.” He said his characters come to him, like “visions,” and he couldn’t shape them into who they aren’t.
Kimille Howard, the director of this play, described the offstage process of ‘tablework’ in theater. She said it entails making connections between characters, their relationships, their histories, and their evolutions to “craft a reading.” I think Esai’s Table has also done onstage tablework. Onstage, characters work through their relationships, their histories, and their evolutions to craft themselves. They are not the same in the end.
Audience members remarked on how immersive this reading of Esai’s Table was -- how they felt involved in it. This was my experience too. I noticed that the locus of spotlights blended into the dim lighting of the room, so the stage didn’t feel so distinct from our seats. I think this was part of the design.
Endnote: here are pictures of the set design, if you want to see a version of what we were asked to imagine -- that is, “a mythical night sea journey atop a magical old table” where “destiny meets eternity”.