Friday, February 26, 2016

"The Call"

The Call
Tanya Barfield

Alexaendrai Bond, Nkechi Emeruwa, Melissa Keith, Darryl V. Jones & Hawlan Ng
As more and more women delay having their first babies in order to finish school, pursue careers, and/or trek the world on one last grand adventure before settling down to parenting, they and their spouses/partners also face increasing issues of fertility drugs, miscarriages, and a ticking clock.  Many couples turn to adoption, but with that decision comes a plethora of additional stress-raising uncertainties.  Tanya Barfield has written a thoughtful play, at times searing with raw emotions, about a forty-something artist whose career is now on pause as she and her husband leave behind years of unsuccessfully attempting pregnancy and turn down the adoption trail with much hope and excitement, doubts and fears.  Theatre Rhinoceros presents the West Coast premiere of The Call where not only questions surrounding adoption and parenting are tackled but also their entanglements with issues of race, AIDS, and the first world’s values and reactions to the hunger, disease, and poverty of the third world.

Annie and Peter are awaiting a phone call to ensure them their contracted surrogate mother is still on board for a promised baby, but Annie’s intuition is telling her that the mother is having second thoughts.  After listening to a rather elongated story by their visiting African-American, lesbian friends, Rebecca and Drea, about a recent safari mishap while touring Africa, Annie lands on the idea of helping solve that continent’s AIDS-induced orphan crisis by adopting a baby from there as her Plan B.  When a possible daughter has been identified and the four friends get together again, conversation turns with excitement and just a bit of edge of who will be most qualified to do the little girl’s hair (the “lily white” mother -- said at this point in jest -- or one of her Black ‘aunties’).  Doubts about the efficacy of this decision pass among the four as more information arrives.  The agency locates not a newborn as requested, but a two-and-a-half-year-old.  An arriving picture in a text shows a girl closer to four or older whose parents have died.  At this point, Annie’s second thoughts are soaring as she cries that she will miss “seeing her first step, her first word, her first tooth.”  As she backs further away from being the mother of this suggested child (resulting in heightening tensions with Peter, who is still all ready to go), she claims rather selfishly, “I’ll share her with the woman she’ll always wish she knew ... She’ll be my only daughter, but I won’t be her only mother.”

Melissa Keith and Hawlan Ng tackle the roles of Annie and Peter with sincerity but with uneven results.  Part of the issue is that Tanya Barfield’s script employs a lot of chitchat and everyday, household banter between them and between them and their friends, especially during the first half of the play.  Sometimes it appears that each of the two primary actors is just going through the motions of those less-exciting lines.  Ms. Keith slouches and shrugs a lot and shows low energy.  Mr. Ng also low keys many of his lines to the point of making the ‘slice of life’ comments totally humdrum.  Each steps up to the plate for more emotional encounters as the play progresses; but even then their connections and electricity as a couple never seem fully genuine.

Much is the opposite for Nkechi Eneruwa and Alexaendrai Bond as the coupled lesbians, Rebecca and Drea.  Sparks of both mutual attraction and marital sparring erupt between them on an ongoing basis; and their little jokes and irritations are seen in the side smiles, frowns, and raised eyebrows they give each other.  Rebecca is a ball of high energy always with an opinion, a story, and a shoulder to cry on.  She also adds a new element to the story in that her brother and Peter once spent as best friends a year in Africa, where the brother died.  Much has been left unsaid about the circumstances by her and Peter – that is until the rising temperatures and tempers surrounding the adoption cause bubbles of the past to rise to the surface and to burst in several explosions.

Drea tends to push the envelop with her frank opinions.  At one point as Annie is starry eyed about wanting a baby from Africa, Drea comments dryly, “There are a helluva lot of Black kids in the U.S.  Why is everyone running to Africa?”  That comment cuts to the quick for the stressed-out Annie, who shoots back, “Why do no African-American couples adopt in the U.S.  ... Blacks don’t adopt.”  (And thus opens in Ms. Barfield’s script a whole new can of worms to contemplate.)  Throughout the play, as the energy level goes down with just Annie and Peter on stage, it rockets when either or both Rebecca and Drea appear, with their then bringing out the best of the former two.

Darryl V. Jones rounds out the cast as a next-door neighbor, Alemu, originally from Africa.  Previously unmet by Annie and Peter, he starts showing up after he hears about the possible adoption of a baby from his homeland (of many years prior) continent.  He comes to the door with Bundt cake and then returns with a box of syringes, shoes, and soccer balls – hoping those all to make it to Africa when his neighbors go to pick up their daughter-to-be.  Mr. Jones tells one of several long, side stories the playwright inserts into the script; and while it is unclear its full necessity, his animated, spry telling is a delight to watch.  There is also deep sadness underneath those otherwise sparkling eyes as he reveals the difficulties of his own life and the regrets of options not taken. “You get stuck in life, with your eyes backwards,” he says to Annie.  That piece of advice, along with others he gives Annie (such as the astute observation, “You want a child from Africa, but you do not what Africa”) is instrumental in a final resolution she reaches.

Jon Wai-keung Lowe has directed this cast with some mixed but overall successful results in delivering a script that relies largely on casual, everyday conversations and situations to delve into issues of infertility; adoption; cultural differences; and underlying racial tensions as well as worries and inborn assumptions about crippling diseases, family histories, and third-world legacies in the future.  His task is aided by his own clever and agile set design with walls that move easily to reveal new rooms and settings.  Kitty Muntzel adds simple but stunning costumes that subtly accentuate the themes of Africa and cultural backgrounds.  Sean Keehan’s lighting concepts and execution offer some beautiful touches.

This is a production that will likely strengthen as days pass beyond Opening Night.  My guess is that the two primary characters will find their way to stronger performances that will match the three, more minor roles; and the director will quicken and vary the pace enough to shore up some of the slower parts of the first half.  All in all, Theatre Rhinoceros is to be congratulated in producing Tanya Barfield’s The Call -- a play that raises a number of very sticky, current questions related to parenting, race, and views of those very different from us.

Rating: 3 E

Theatre Rhinoceros’s West Coast premiere of The Call continues through March 12, 201at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photo by David Wilson

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