Review: ‘Sweet Maladies’ at Brava is searing, powerful

"Sweet Maladies" at Brava Theater Center plays through Sunday, Aug. 3rd.
“Sweet Maladies” at Brava Theater Center plays through Sunday, Aug. 3rd.

“For we colored people did not know how to be free and white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” – freedman Houston Hartsfield Holloway

*          *          *

A little girl. And some sugar.

It is a lovely combination. A young lady who radiates with joy over sweetness, wishing that someday the rains may become droplets of sugar, bringing smiles and joy to all little girls throughout the land.

But watching Mary suck molasses off her fingers with such happiness, and then with apprehension, finally with loathing is downright painful to observe. The bliss evaporates, and as conversations continue, the pain and discomfort stifles.

Moments such as these make the searing drama “Sweet Maladies,” playing through Sunday Aug. 3rd at Brava Theater Center in San Francisco’s Mission District, so powerful. The cast of four is tight and all kinds of brilliant, with a fluid, flowing script written by Zakiyyah Alexander.

“Sweet Maladies” (based on French playwright Jean Genet’s play “The Maids”) is the story of three sisters including Polly (Kehinde Koyejo), the older, pragmatic maternal figure, her fiery sister Cecile (Britney Frazier), and littlest sister Mary (Stefanee Martin). The three girls are now freed slaves, yet they have nothing or nowhere to go. So they role-play. A lot.

They dig deeply into the disconcerting world of the minstrel show, also role-playing their experiences and desperate fantasies in regards to their mistress named Margaret (Lisa Ann Porter). The transitions between fantasy and reality are seamless and beautifully constructed. And the commitment to finding the humor amongst the actors, led brilliantly by the sharply-paced direction of Edris-Cooper Anifowoshe, is top-notch.

What completely works in this production is the solid work of each actor. There is much to fear in regards to this newfound freedom. Certainly, a life where one is owned by another human being, no matter how degrading, has its advantages, the girls argue. Should they leave and find their mother who was taken from them so many years ago? Or should they stay in this life of servitude, which still provides a roof over their heads. After all, according to Polly, “Plenty of slaves don’t got it this good.”

Yet the dreams of these young ladies go far beyond the stifling walls of Margaret’s house, she of the royal petulance. She flits around with a palpable air of condescension, begging them to stay, reminding “her nigs” that “we belong to each other.” It is this disgusting contradiction that becomes too much for Polly and Cecile, who have now reached a point where they are ready to make a few permanent moves.

Each of the four actors worked Brava’s studio space with a fluid mastery. Porter’s portrayal was sharply committed, a character who made the audience seethe with her patronizing speeches about love and family, all the while reminding the women that she wears the pretty dresses in this house. Koyejo’s portrayal was regal, brimming with pride while working on behalf of her sisters in an effort to try and make the best decisions. Frazier, with her sharp lovely features, provided a most excellent foil for Koyejo, with a dazzling nuance that certainly forces Polly into decisions good and bad.

Nothing will honestly prepare you for the absolute, flat-out tour de force that is Martin. First of all, she has the biggest stretch of the cast, playing a very small child. And she is a phenom, especially when she has no lines. She listens wide-eyed. She creates a mesmerizing pathos that radiates through the space. And she absolutely nails a 10-minute soliloquy that provides a childlike insight of the hell that slavery hath wrought.

“Sweet Maladies” is powerful, frank, and does what great theatre is supposed to – make you hurt, make you think, make you angry. And it also follows a process that ensures success in the theatre every single time – powerful script, skilled directing and sharp-as-nails acting performances. It’s a recipe as delicious as a warm muffin.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Brava! For Women in the Arts & Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience present “Sweet Maladies”
Written by Zakiyyah Alexander
Directed by Edris-Cooper Anifowoshe
Through Sunday, Aug. 3rd
The word: A masterful play that features transcendent acting performances, a story of emancipated slaves on the cusp of the Reconstruction Era.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Tickets priced at $15
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Brava Theater Center – Upstairs studio theater
2781 24th Street, San Francisco, CA
For tickets, call (415) 641-7657, ext. 1 or visit http://www.brava.org

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