Last night I checked out the Atlanta premiere of Addae Moon's Notes from the Bottle Tree, part of Horizon Theatre's 6th Annual New South Play Festival.
Set in Atlanta's West End, it is a lyrical tale of an aspiring twenty-something photographer, Jules (Shontelle Thrash), preparing to mount a photography exhibition/art installation that could be her big breakthrough - both careerwise and emotionwise. Careerwise, as Jules struggles against a deadline to select final photographs for her installment, she also struggles to compose artist notes for the press release - notes to define/describe her southern Black art to the New York critical establishment. Emotionally, Jules struggles to come to bring into focus her relationships with the three enigmatic men in her life: her younger brother, Red (Johnell Easter), a shady ex-con, whom she has refused communication for 3 years; her boyfriend, Che (Neal Hazard), a rugged/romantic, struggling sculptor who has turned the corner on his own shady past, and her dead war veteran father from the Gullah region off the coast of Georgia, who exists spiritually in the form of the multimedia (slide, photography, bottle tree) art installation.
What is at stake is the father has left a house to his two surviving children: Jules, who wants to sell it and split the money, and Red, who wants to keep it for the sake of legacy. However, I must admit that I never fully invested in this as the dynamic string to tug me along as an audience member.
What does carry me is the graceful text, which effuses metaphor and symbolism (in a way reminiscent of Williams' Glass Menagerie) - the bottle tree; Jules' struggle in the darkness of her photography studio; the card/con game between Che and Jules; the crescent moon scar which the father, all of his brothers, and Red share. And even though the language frequently soars into the poetic, it stays pleasantly earthbound with casual vulgarities - a muthaf*cka here, a muthaf*cka there - weaving themes of rites of passage, superstition, betrayal, legacy, and sacrifice.
Easter delivers a convincingly duplicitous Red, and Hazard is adequate as Che. They shine in their game of Spades, where the stakes are the way of the straight-and-narrow versus the way of the streets. In contrast, there are moments when Thrash is awkward as Jules, when Moon's words seem uncomfortable in her mouth. I wished for stronger chemistry between her and Hazard and between her and Easter but this was likely hindered by Thrash's flatness with some of the lines. (I have seen Thrash shine in other roles, however, so this may be a reflection of her still feeling out the role.)
Although the dilemma of keeping or selling the father's house didn't grab me, what were largely fascinating were the tensions between Red - broke, corrupt, and freshly out of prison - and Che, broke, turning over a new leaf, and out of the drug game; the push and pull of them against each other; how they in their darkness and light, for better or for worse, loved and protected Jules.
With a running time of only 80-minutes, the one-act production moves fairly fluidly through its 10 or so scenes, each a lyrical snapshot in itself. Echoing the lush textual soundscape is the sound production - at once gritty and graceful: transitions between scenes taking place to the tune of bluesy hip-hop instrumentals; and a recurring looped soundtrack of chirping crickets as Jules works and develops her photographs in the stark urban studio apartment.
In the magical set design (which is at once train station, studio apartment, and her father's yard), the dominant figure is the bottle tree - a folk tradition carried by African slaves to the southern U.S. It consists of colorful bottles (often blue in the Gullah tradition) placed on the ends of the branches, which are believed to ward off evil spirits. Here as a dominant presence, the bottle tree is a constant reminder of the significance of the past within the Afrocentric cultural context of Notes.
Again, the selling/keeping of the house seems a weak driving plot, but Moon's pay-off is much greater than any linear resolution could have possibly produced. Instead of reaching a destination, the play comes together in a climactic moment of revelation and discovery.
In African traditions (as in other pagan societies), the spilling of blood is necessary for spiritual cleansing. After a gambling venture has gone awry, Red stumbles on-stage with a gunshot wound. The spillage of his blood conjures a surreal episode in which the art installation takes on life.
Jules is unable to process the pain of seeing her bleeding brother, which leaves her boyfriend Che to try to suppress the wound. When blood gets on her, Jules reacts in the only way she knows how - with her camera. Which is the same way she reacted as a teenager when their father attempted to enact a rites of passage on Red by carving a scar on his face. In the background, the slide projector flashes images of the father alternately captured in happiness and hysteria and handcuffs as they, in the present moment, relive the past. And serving its purpose of capturing the evil spirits, the bottle tree looms over all.
As past becomes present, death becomes life, and life becomes art. It is all a continuum. Red survives, but the spilling of his blood ultimately reveals and heals all.
Presented as part of Horizon Theatre's outreach to new audiences (read: twenty and thirty-something African Americans), it was interesting to see how the different ways in which the "traditional" audience and the "outreach" audience reacted differently to Notes... For example, a comical allusion to Celie and Nettie's infamous patty cake scene from The Color Purple, only struck a chord with a certain segment of the audience. Likewise, a more obscure deliberate mispronunciation of the Atlanta suburb East Point as East Purnt, flew completely over others' heads. These may have been trivial moments, but what of the larger issues of symbolism regarding blood sacrifice and the signficance of the bottle tree as a cultural symbol? This begs the question: Will the "traditional" critics have the full critical capacity to appreciate and analyze this work? Further, will they seek to expand their critical vocabularies to address this new Black theatre? And even further than that, is it their place to?
No one's newspaper is beating down my door to offer my Afrocentered analysis of Mamet or Kushner. Isn't it the duty of those in the light to spread it?
I'm not seeking to start a cultural revolution. But in the meantime, go see one that's already begun:
Addae Moon's Notes from the Bottle Tree plays Sundays thru Tuesdays, May 24 thru June 27, 8:00 p.m. at Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points, Atlanta.