LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: At the Intersection of Friendship, Faith & Fantasy
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Hickory Hill Community Center, 3000 E. Belt Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23234
Performances: September 19 @ 12:30PM; September 21, 21, 22 @ 8:00PM & September 22 @ 4:00PM
Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how the poetically titled Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural managed to move me as deeply as it did. Written by Jerry Maple, Jr., who was also the author of last’s year’s The Dream Seller and the Forest Dwellers, a children’s play produced by Heritage Ensemble, Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural is described as “a light-hearted serio-comedy.” I would describe it more as an intersection or perhaps a collision of friendship, faith, and fantasy.
Running one hour and twenty minutes with no intermission (but with an inexplicably long pause that obviously did not involve a change of costume or scenery), the play takes place in the single room residence of Dr. Enola VanderHorn-Bernard (Crystal Wiley-Perry). The plot revolves around Enola, a Harvard educated M.D. who one day walked away from her medical practice, her husband, and two daughters. The words depression or mental illness are never mentioned, although Enola’s friends are not exempt from calling her “crazy,” but this is clearly a case of at least clinical depression, and possibly something more. And that is why it requires a tremendous suspension of belief to accept that Enola suddenly snaps out of it.
Enola is a brilliant woman with a heart for people, a dislike of privilege, and an unfulfilled desire to be a missionary. Describing her past life with her husband, also a prominent physician, she says that he was “lost in prominence.” Enola’s best friends are now Shummay St. Catherine, a Guyanese short-order cook at a downtown diner (played by Haliya Robert with a flawless accent that impressed even a Guyanese audience member), and her landlord Manfred Monroe (played by Isaiah Entzminger). Enola has “rented” a room in Manfred’s Harlem brownstone for twenty years, but Manfred, who describes himself as stingy, has allowed her to go months, if not years, without paying the rent, which becomes something of an ongoing joke. More concerning, Enola has not seen her family for twenty years, and has not looked in a mirror for nineteen of those years.
A fourth character, Dr. Latooza Wellington (Whitney Tymas), was Enola’s Harvard classmate, and suddenly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. Latooza plays a key role in Enola’s final scene breakthrough, and there is a distinct difference in the interactions between Enola and Latooza and those between Enola and all the other characters, but to tell more would spoil the surprise. Toney Q. Cobb has directed with a keen eye for detail, humor, and the storyteller’s pace that is a trademark of this company and its artistic director, Margarette Joyner. That storyteller’s pace sometimes drags a bit, especially as there is no intermission. I’m not sure if it that was an artistic or directorial choice or a requirement of the author. If given an opportunity, I would ask Maple about that as well as about the characters’ names – unusual even for a group of African Americans.
The multi-talented Joyner designed the set (a cluttered, tiny room at the top floor of a brownstone), Pamela Archer-Shaw designed the sound (which included appropriate popular mood music, including “Beautiful,” which I believe is a popular Christina Aguilera song at a key moment in Enola’s evolution), and LaWanda Raines did the costumes (a task made somewhat easier by the lead character’s refusal to change clothes until the final scene).
There is much about this production that some might dismiss as unbelievable, unpolished, or just generally flawed. Why, for instance, is such a big deal made of Enola changing from shoes to house slippers each time she enters her room? Could Enola’s frequent long monologues with herself have been handled differently? But then, there is something magical that happens in that intersection between friendship, faith, and fantasy that I mentioned above, something that inexplicably tugs at the heart and perhaps even dampens the eyes. And that is enough for me to recommend that you see this touching and unusual play and its earnest ensemble during its short run of just four days (the original opening was postponed due to last week’s impending hurricane warnings), ending with two shows on Saturday, September 22, one at 4PM and another at 8PM.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company