The moments of eeriness begin in earnest before others enter, a teenager who stands in the center of the room, doing everything possible to not pull focus, which makes the focus being pulled so strong and intricate.
What has this young person experienced in life that is so scarring, so traumatic? Clothes too loose, a backpack too large, and a mind too heavy with devastation. And mystery – so much mystery in the body, anguish in the eyes.
In a day and age when theatre productions have leaned into run times that often state 90 minutes, no intermission, Oakland Theater Project’s production of “sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn)” smolders with urgency, a play that packs a wallop in an even tighter 60-minute time frame. Directed by Michael Socrates Moran and written by fantabulous artist Lisa Ramirez, a compelling story is set within a set that is equal parts minimal and grand.
Five young folks are locked into a battle at a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland, not long after the brutal murder of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. They are May (Charlotte Ying Levy), the African-American alpha-teen Bell (Success Ufondu), her younger sister and indecisive protester Angie (Metsehafe Eyob) and Sabra (Daniela Cervantes) who leads with a fiery stoicism.
And then there’s the teen that starts the show before curtain time, playing transgender character Jean Dark (Romeo Channer), prone to traumatic outbursts that disrupt the flow of everyone’s process.
All five of the characters hail from Oakland, and while the piece has clear goals loaded within the context of how the city shapes their anger and activism, Ramirez’s piece never falls into the trap of being a regionally specific narrative. It’s the ideas brimming from these children that ascend with the power of rage, children forced into solving problems they didn’t create.
There is a cacophony of chaos and agita that pounds off the walls of Oakland’s Flax art & design building. Everyone has skin in the game, even if that means some have to fight harder to be seen. That is a mighty part of the brilliance of Ramirez’s perspicacious dialogue and the guttural performances that Moran gets out of this young and fresh cast – no topic is off the table. The climate, inequity, visibility within a movement and who gets centered is all fair game.
The play is crafted mightily from the strength of its ideas and the courage of its convictions. These children are in crisis, placed in some very specific and marginalized worlds. Bell isn’t trying to be anyone’s friend. She has experienced too much, and has seen her life hardened and shaped by the society that rejects her constantly. She’s a richly ironic character – one who is going to challenge adults and hold truth to power, despite not wielding much of it herself.
That does not mean that others shy away from the challenge of facing her and holding their own lines. Sabra is quick to remind Bell that everyone in this candle shop that doubles as their safe haven aims to do their part to bring forth justice. Any one of them may need to be the next martyr, which is infuriating to process.
Where the narrative keeps things astounding is in how the play looks to create parallels with the life of Saint Joan of Arc. Throughout the play, short facts about her are interspersed through Elton Bradman’s keen sound design, paralleling moments in the narrative. Those parallels are connected deeply with the luscious open space that is created by Karla Hargrave’s scenic design. There are heavily religious candles and the cold of a garage door where the winter East Bay air rushes at the children and audience with a metaphoric chill.
In the moments throughout the production’s life, there is frustration, heartbreak, some delightful comic touches that balance out such a charged topic, and an ending that careens and compels.
When things are bleak or dark, we often reach for a candle. When things are bleak or dark, children should reach out to adults, who should be taking care of them. While Joan of Arc and her heroism has inspired generations for hundreds of years, there is something else to view when examining the martyr myth – Joan of Arc was 19, still a child, a teenager, and martyrdom probably wasn’t on her short list of things to do. She must have been terrified beyond words as flames engulfed every inch of her soon-to-be charred body.
The children of “sAiNt jOaN” are also terrified, but not beyond words. They use plenty of them, shouting, screaming and raging against the dying flicker of candlelight.
Which begs the question – who is actually listening?
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Oakland Theater Project presents “sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn)”
Written by Lisa Ramirez
Directed by Michael Socrates Moran
The Word: The dialogue of Ramirez, a wonderful and curious artist, along with the performances Moran gets out of such a young and diverse cast, is phenomenal. A tight run time, but what those minutes are filled with compel.
Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission
Flax art & design building
1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, CA
Tickets range from $10 – $50
For tickets and information, call (510) 646-1126 or visit oaklandtheaterproject.org