As Patricia Ione Lloyd’s Eve’s Song begins, young Mark (Karl Green) is channel-surfing the television in the fourth wall. He hits a station where a newscaster reports that an unarmed black man has been shot by a policeman. The announcement has no sooner been made than Mark’s mother Deborah (De’Adre Aziza), showing no particular emotion, snaps off the set for dinnertime.
If only it was that easy to ignore the way things are, Lloyd is suggesting at the Public Theater and thereby hinting strongly that she’s about to demonstrate otherwise. She’ll pull off that disillusioning trick in an ultimately devastating (hyperactively devastating?) intermissionless 100-minute play.
Deborah, 20 years at a high-level job while raising Mark and Lauren (Kadijah Raquel), has been demanding that her children behave properly. (Riccardo Hernandez supplies the tasteful living room/dining room; Emilio Sosa supplies the office-smart workingwoman’s wardrobe.)
Discussions at the dinner table, she insists, should be mannerly and include shared interest in how everyone’s day has been. As a mother raising her children alone, she implicitly believes that civilized behavior automatically perpetuates a civilized world.
Lloyd, however, believes nothing of the sort, and it’s hard to argue with her inflexible convictions in a work—and in a world—where she pours one heartache on another and then eventually on another and another.
Initially, the home life viewed here is typical. Teenagers Lauren and Mark goad one another, as kids will. Mothers do their best to intervene. But events slowly intensify. Lauren has announced she’s a lesbian, and Deborah isn’t quite certain how to deal with that. She’s especially flummoxed when Lauren brings new girlfriend, the confrontational Upendo, born Tiffany (Ashley D. Kelley), to dine. Also, the generally mild Mark is having trouble at school.
Upendo, having insulted Deborah over the meal and been sent away by Lauren, returns later that night to apologize. She does so by climbing in Lauren’s bedroom window for what becomes a sexual encounter. And her entrance can certainly be read as a metaphor for outside influences finding ways to invade a home no matter how literally and figuratively locked the front door is.
As Deborah’s problems accumulate—in a later development she is informed at an office meeting that Mark is detained at school and that evolves into larger consequences—Lloyd introduces a surreal strain related to her title. In the script she refers to a song sung 100,000 years back by, as she posits it, the first black woman Eve. Apparently, the song is sung at the woman’s death.
Working the mysterious element in, she has a ghostly figure walk silently behind Deborah, Mark and Lauren when they’re at table. Following that apparition, which elicits gasps and even nervous laughs from the audience—the figure and two others get their own graphic scenes.
Telling their stories before Hernandez’s shifting walls, the Spirit Women (Vernice Miller, Rachel Watson-Jih, Tamara M. Williams) toss themselves about as if contorted by killer storms. (The storms are theatrically realized by lighting designer Lap Chi Chu’s menacingly flashing lights and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop’s thunderclaps.) Presumably, these tormented spirits are each singing Eve’s song.
There’s no question that before Lloyd reaches her disturbing conclusion she goes over the top. The questions are: Is she simply overdoing it? Or must she go over the top to register how dire conditions are in today’s indisputably racist society?
Shifting walls abound in Eve’s Song. Sometimes the Spirit Women even do the moving. But is it necessary to show Deborah’s wall actually cracking to make the point? One of the Spirit Women announces she’s transgender? As part of recent theater seasons with transgender characters and actors an intensifying trend, the Spirit Woman’s confiding—and a different reference to “gender fluidity”—can seem like jumping on a bandwagon.
By the end of the drama when it looks as if Deborah may get the opportunity to sing her own version of Eve’s song, Eve’s Song has started to resemble Deborah’s homage to The Book of Job. Is it too much? Or perhaps is it not even enough? Is restraint a virtue? Or is today’s societal climate not a time for restraint?
Patrons will have to decide for themselves, although Jo Bonney directs with exactly the right restraint, and the cast members respond to her. Aziza, Raquel, Green and Kelley hit the right levels throughout. For the Spirit Women roles, which call for adjuring restraint, Miller, Watson-Jih and Williams hit the right elevated notes.
Incidentally, projectionist Hana S. Kim deserves a bow for her references on Hernandez’s walls to first-rate contemporary artists Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley, who did Barack Obama’s National Portrait Gallery painting.
Eve’s Song is a hard-hitting screed that arrives at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has had to form due to daily intimations (often emanating from the White House) that black lives don’t particularly matter. As the audience exits Eve’s Song, sound designer Ittoop floats Nina Simone singing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Oh, yeah? At it’s best under Lloyd’s circumstances, it’s a dull sun.
Eve’s Song opened at the Public Theater November 7, 2018, and runs to December 9. Tickets and information: publictheater.org