“B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching” Bears Investigation
There are at least three strong stories running through “B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching” which could easily support their own play. They are about a mixed-race couple surviving after the grief of losing a child, a young Black professional woman’s navigation between the professional and personal world and a police procedural about a troubled young Black murder suspect who is mysteriously hiding evidence that could exonerate him.
The World Premiere play by Tara L. Wilson Noth being presented by Berkshire Theatre Group on The Unicorn Stage is lavished with a terrific production featuring exceptional actors directed by Kimille Howard on an empty arena space (set designed by Baron E. Pugh) which has sharp scene changing projections (designed by David Murakami) that take us through the numerous settings.
The play opens with a dream or impressionistic street setting of a young mother in a bathrobe cradling a baby, stepping forward to loud traffic and letting go of the baby…which unfurls as an empty towel. It is an arresting, provocative prologue which inspires many questions.
She is Olivia Bennett (Deanna Supplee, superb) and we soon find out from the next scene with her white husband Mark (chilly and decisive Torsten Johnson) that they are struggling to move on together after the loss of a child. They work together in his father’s law firm, and she has taken on Legal Aid cases which brings Evelyn Payne (Almeria Campbell) to her office pleading for a defense for her teenage son (Deshawn Payne, terrific) accused of murder. This scene ignited the first act, and I was riveted with the mother’s primal need forcefully played by Campbell.
The two other actors rounding out the cast underline the theme of code switching. Rebecca L. Hargrove as another beautiful Black lawyer at the Bennett law firm and Jahi Kearse as a photographer somewhat fantastically photographing Deshawn in his meeting with his lawyer. Code switching refers to the linguistic process of switching one’s language or dialect to that of another. The scenes between Campbell and Kearse are especially involving as Kearse has a fantastic voice, booming and supple, the audience is as attracted to him as the lawyer.
The broken bird in the title could be a metaphor for Deshawn and comes from a Langston Hughes poem “Dreams.” “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly.” Sturgis is very strong in the role; wounded and defensive, sensitive and dangerous, it’s a great performance. Holding the huge play with its perhaps too busy agenda together is Supplee who effortlessly makes you care for this powerful woman challenged by these circumstances. There was too much going on in the play for me to stay consistently engaged but Supplee was watchable throughout.
Howard has done an awesome job with her cast, they fulfill all the play’s many requirements and then some. The technical production could have benefitted from fewer scene changes. There are three different desks that roll on and off for specific scenes and one wonders why the space couldn’t have had more neutral furniture suiting all the scenes rather than the constant changes.
“B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching” is a fascinating and involving look at race and our class system. It is a rich, over-stuffed play of ideas brimming with smarts, pain and a fervent plea to be seen. It should be seen.
“B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching” runs through 7/9 at The Unicorn Theatre. Tickets available at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or (413) 997-4444