In the provocative recent book “(1)ne Drop,” Yaba Blay demonstrates, in photos and first-person essays, the complexity of “racial ambiguity and contested racial authenticity” among Americans of African descent.
Seattle dramatist Rachel Atkins finds another way into the subject of how skin color defines identity in “Black Like Us,” her candid, compassionate and engagingly humorous, if somewhat rambling, new play at Annex Theatre. Atkins addresses here the impact that race and skin color have on the lives of two sisters and their female offspring.
Though it switches around in time, “Black Like Us” opens and closes in Seattle in the 1950s, in the home of feisty college student Maxine (Dior Davenport)
and her shyly romantic sister, Florence (Chelsea Binta).
They live with their parents in Seattle’s Central District. Maxine is dark-skinned and a fan of black pop music. Florence is lighter-skinned and loves Broadway show tunes, when “every other Negro in America” is going wild for Chuck Berry.
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Atkins drops the bombshell quickly that resonates throughout the play: To Maxine’s dismay, Florence announces she’s eloping with a white man who is unaware she is African American. In a nation still steeped in racial discrimination (Seattle included), she grabs “the chance to live a different life, an easier life” by passing as Caucasian.
Moving forward, it’s 2013 and three young women who believed their late grandma Florence was white find locked-away photos of her black clan. Stunned, they wonder: Why was Florence’s race a secret? Who are the black relatives they’ve never met? What does it mean to be mixed-race themselves?
“Black Like Us” smartly explores all this in grays, not stark black and white. And Atkins shrewdly creates suspense by not telling the story in a straight timeline.
Director Jose Amador and his cast handle the decade shifting (and embedded historical references to the civil-rights and black-power movements, school desegregation and urban gentrification) quite smoothly.
For all its strengths, the play needs streamlining, deepening to reach its full promise.
The most revealing, moving moments are between Binta’s determined, defensive Florence and Davenport’s unforgiving Maxine. Long estranged, they have a painful meeting in a department store, and much later a tense, poignant encounter at a supermarket.
It’s hard to believe Florence would blow off her loving parents for her first 12 years o f marriage. But the feelings of guilt, anger, hurt and sorrow that erupt between her and Maxine in their few reunions, and the grief that underlies them, ring painfully true.
The repartee between their adult granddaughters (including Maxine’s two) is broader, bitchier and more comedic. Their long spates of sisterly bickering do little to enrich the play’s characterizations or story. And when the cousins awkwardly meet for the first time, brattiness trumps insight.
But Atkins really has a tale worth refining in “Black Like Us” — a reflection on how limiting a “them vs. us” mindset is, in a land where racial and cultural identity cannot be so easily defined.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org