Keegan Theatre returns for a virtual fall season that looks a little bit different, but still packs an emotional punch
Within the first few minutes of Keegan Theatre’s From Gumbo to Mumbo, I was struck with a sense of panic: how could I, a New York Jew, give a fair review to a show that heavily leaned on a discussion of gumbo and bacon, and said something tasted like it was from New York as a form of an insult? I’ve covered and enjoyed art that doesn’t regard me as the target audience, but I definitely felt a bit in over my head.
But, by the third segment, the poetry of Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown’s words drew me in, and hooked me. And it clicked: From Gumbo to Mumbo is like my favorite books of poetry – a little rough when you’re still learning the rhythms, but ultimately captivating. Anderson and Lawson-Brown’s command of language is stunning, and I found myself wishing for a copy of the script to pour over so I could marvel at their unique blend of colloquial speech, pop culture references, and classical literary allusion – a lesson in DC slang alongside references to Play Station and Greek mythology doesn’t sound like a natural fit, but in Anderson and Lawson-Brown’s hands it’s the perfect encapsulation of this moment in history. The linguistic juxtapositions in this script – the connections between Shakespeare and Mr. Ed, modern song lyrics to historical events, literacy to capitalism to race to Marvel comics – are absolutely stunning, and I feel like the audience could discover a new, intriguing turn of phrase with each viewing. Even the more direct verbal formulations are praise-worthy, and manage to strike a chord in their frankness – references to a “democratic dictatorship” and our support during the Revolution from “compadres,” connecting Tuskegee to Trayvon Martin, the beautiful phrasing of our country’s history of hypocrisy as the “land of the free” built on slavery.
The show, directed by visionary Duane Richards II, is formed by a series of skits covering topics ranging from the personal to the psychological to the political. It’s both a love letter and a memory, a hope and a reckoning. Nothing is off-limits – politics, police brutality, gentrification, mental health, masculinity, wealth, status, food, sports, love, education, opportunity, bullying, history – and every topic, every reference, is addressed honestly and eloquently. To pull this off is a tremendous feat, especially in our current climate, but its ability to do so in a way that communicates reverence, frustration, and hope is what makes From Gumbo to Mumbo absolutely artful.
From a production standpoint, the show is equally solid. Anderson and Lawson-Brown stick to simple costumes that perfectly encapsulate their personalities and message – a New Orleans Saints jersey, a Southeast DC tee, a shirt listing the names of victims of police brutality. Matthew J. Keenan’s set is likewise sparse, but purposeful – the space allows the language to remain the center of focus, and makes room for hard-hitting set pieces and props, such as a draped casket. Keenan, Multimedia Designer Jeremy Bennett, and Video Engineer Shee Shee Jin are also responsible for the show’s main supporting element, the screens that accompany each segment and often manage the transitions between them; from news clips to enhancing images, the screens artfully arrayed behind the actors enhance the show without ever distracting the audience. John Alexander‘s lighting also contributes to the overall effect, particularly bringing an emotional layer to Lawson-Brown’s segment on masculinity, trauma, and mental health.
(As an aside, Keenan, Bennett, and Jin’s work is also incredibly versatile – the same set is incorporated in the other show in repertory, TRANS AM, yet it feels custom to each performance.)
Overall, From Gumbo to Mumbo is both a personal and social performance that enraptures the audience. I might have found the opening a bit rough at first, but by the time Anderson and Lawson-Brown unfurled their home flags for their bows, I was utterly enraptured.
But don’t ever insult New York cooking again.
Keegan Theatre’s Virtual Fall Repertory features From Gumbo to Mumbo through November 29th. Information on the show and tickets (available at $30/household) can be found on the Keegan Theatre website. Run time is approximately one hour over Keegan Theatre’s live stream.
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman Photography