Sunday, October 21, 2018

"graveyard shift"

graveyard shift
Korde Arrington Tuttle

Rondrell McCormick & Sam Jackson
From the beginning, it is clear that the two, separate stories running in parallel -- seamlessly shifting from one to the other on the same stage without a pause – are at some point bound to collide.  As we get to know an young, African American couple trying to sort out a long-distance relationship and a trio of night-shift employees in the Prairie Ville, Texas police department – the latter, all white – we cannot help but anticipate that the eventual intersection of these two, disparate stories is going to be a crash and perhaps one dreadfully familiar.  After all, one of the police is a jumpy, impulsive white guy – almost a kid in many respects -- on administrative leave for some past questionable act while on patrol who is clearly aching to get back into his patrol car.  And then there is the African American male who is waiting for a permanent appointment at the local university.  We cannot help but expect that today’s too-frequent headlines will dictate the story we progressively expect to see occur.

But in Korde Arrington Tuttle’s graveyard shift – now receiving its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox series – even what seems inevitable does not happen exactly as we might expect.  Yes, there is an impending tragedy that will definitely seem could have been avoidable if only calmer dispositions, less built-up prejudice, and different personalities had ruled the day.  The script’s eventual twists and turns – tense and tragic all – will lead down a road of no return and with a dead end that raises more questions than it answers.  And in that end, we will leave wondering how these people who in the first three-quarters of the play provide us some good laughs, some moments of romantic tease, and some intrigue as to who will actually end up with whom as their lives proceed – how these same people’s hopes, dreams, and possibilities could all so quickly dissipate over one incident in some ways so every day, so ordinary.

Melissa Crespo directs this this incredibly captivating script of interlocked yet separate stories with masterful touches at every turn.  Timing is exquisitely and intricately exact as one scene blends into the next, with location switches from an apartment to an office made while characters in both scenes pass each other unseen, often picking up a phrase from the other and continuing it in a totally different context.  A question raised by one person might be answered by another who is in the other story or a pause in this person’s sentence might be finished with a different implication and meaning by a person in the other story.  Papa John pizzas (all meat, please), a family of deer, and Billy Joel’s music are just some of the similarities that pop up in both stories in ways totally unrelated but also as signs that there are forces existing to pull these two universes together into a big, unexpected bang.  Together, playwright and director create with jaw-dropping precision two scripts that could exist totally separate, but two that we just know must soon intercede. 

And when the stories do finally connect, again director and playwright along with two actors produce an astounding scene where two people stand shoulder-to-shoulder facing us as audience -- never looking at each other and never touching.  Through the power of the written words and the directed intonations, body stances, and facial expressions, an increasingly ugly, physical conflict that should never have happened takes place before our eyes – totally vivid without one step being taken, one person touching another.  And it is a scene we sit there knowing we have seen on too many YouTube/Facebook videos, even in the past few months.

Sam Jackson
Janelle is a fiercely independent, young woman living in Chicago, trying to decide whether to move back to Texas where her on-and-off-again boyfriend of six years, Kane, works at Prairie Ville A&M University.  Sam Jackson impeccably displays a ferocity of will and inner strength as Janelle, who is clear she “does not want to depend” on anyone – including the man she loves (at least most of the time).  She is somewhat skeptical that life will play out well for her as a black woman (“Everything is a lie”), especially when she keeps getting rejections during her job search; and she is completely doubtful that she wants to be the “baby mommy” Kane wants her to be.  In fact, she actually likes what he calls “a polyamorous relationship with distance,” admitting to him “sometimes loving distance more than I love you.”  But then he finally produces a ring.

Rondrell McCormick
As Kane, Randall McCormick is sometimes more like a rambunctious teen in heat than the grown, accomplished man Kane actually is, displaying a sense of play, flirt, and tendency toward the dramatic as he tries to seal the deal with his one true love.  But he also has some doubt, telling Janelle, “I wasn’t raised how to love a strong woman like you.”  Mr. McCormick’s Kane is easy-going, likeable, and in many ways like an overgrown puppy – until ...

Amanda Farbstein & Gwen Loeb
Working the night shifts in the administrative office of the local police are Elise (Amanda Farbstein) and Trish (Gwen Loeb).  Trish is a lifer working nights who is finally up for a promotion and who is nothing if she is not serious about her work.  When at one point she giggles in octaves high and wild, Elise looks at her at in wonder because no one in the office has ever heard Trish laugh. 

Ms. Loeb is Texan through and through and can take a word like “smooth” and easily make it at least three syllables.  Blunt as her Trish is, she has no problem letting Brian – a patrol officer who has been placed on probation and under her reluctant charge – know with her scowl and her snarl how much she does not care for him.  No matter how much he tries to kid with her or please her (like trying to fix the coffee maker or lure out a family of raccoons from the attic), she wants no part of his friendship.

Max Carpenter & Amanda Farbstein
Elise is also trying to tell Brian how she really feels about him.  Even though they have both been attracted to each other since fourteen, she is just getting out of a very dependent relationship; and he is married.  He wants to pick things back up with her even though he has a wife; she is trying to save enough money to go to Nashville to try making it as a songwriter/singer.  In the meantime, they both have the office hots for each other, and sloppily making out without Trish seeing them becomes a fun undertaking.  But when Elise breaks into a soulful song she has written (a stunning performance by Ms. Farbstein), it is clear that she has some news to drop on poor Brian:
“Gotta piece of you in my bag,
Already gone, ain’t coming back
Tired of holding this piece of you.”

Max Carpenter
As Brian, Max Carpenter is on the one hand, a dippled, good ol’ boy of a Texas small town that is full of spunk and spirit.  When he tries to lure out the raccoons, he talks with a heart that can melt others’.  But there is something also just under the surface that from the beginning, one cannot help but see trouble waiting to happen.  Maybe it is when he and Elise break into a rap throwing around the “n-word” while mimicking the moves of a black rapper.  Or maybe it is underlying hints of antsy impatience, unease about life, or quick to have a bit of temper (even if taken out on a broken coffee maker).  Mr. Carpenter, like the rest of this outstanding cast, in many ways is just a part of a good story that we can easily relate and enjoy – all the time anticipating there is about to be a moment of no return when neither of the stories is any longer just about searches for love, career, and some level of life happiness.

Randy Wong-Westbrooke has created an intriguing set that easily undergoes transformations of location with little change of properties.  A back wall of various sized panels of gray – some missing – becomes part of the shifting script as other pieces disappear to reveal new backdrops and settings that play important parts in the developing stories.  The lighting of Brittany Mellerson also plays a major role in pinpointing tense moments and in adding to the overall, sometimes breathless anticipations of what will happen next.  Likewise, the sound design of James Ard helps establish scenes not explicitly laid out in front of us as well as provides music and effects that help us both distinguish and interlock the two stories.

As is often true for a world premiere – and for a Sandbox Series where the play is explicitly still in the making – everything does not exactly work that well the first time out.  In this case, the play’s ending is in need of a second try, script-wise.  The abrupt blackout during the play’s most acute standoff -- leaving the outcome unresolved – followed by a scene of denouement that is vague as to what and why is happening both leave an exiting audience who all seem to be scratching their heads wondering, “Huh?”  After an hour, forty minutes of a script so exceptionally written, directed, and performed, ending with a final, few minutes of ‘fill-in-the-blanks-yourself’ is a bit disappointing. 

That said, Korde Arrington Tuttle’s graveyard shift – after a bit of re-work – deserves future stagings and will hopefully become a frequent offering across the country in the next few years.  In the meantime, there is much to fascinate and many important questions to discuss in the present, premiere version so ably produced in every respect by San Francisco Playhouse, The Sandbox Series.

Rating: 4 E

graveyard shift continues through November 3, 2018 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at The Creativity Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Jessica Palipoli

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