The production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” has been exciting for the Seattle University Theater Department. The diverse cast of characters featured in the play are conflicted, energetic and funny, which has resulted in a compelling onstage production that is full of pain, loneliness and internal struggles to move forward. This funny, dark, moving show set in modern day Harlem is a surprisingly refreshing take on the art of theatre.
Cast members share a laugh on the bar set, one of the set pieces used in the play’s production.
The plot of the play seems to be an unorthodox mixture of elements meant to combine and create a sort of dark comedy. At its most broad, the play is about a recently deceased drunkard of a nun whose body has mysteriously gone missing the day before her wake. That alone is enough to put a grin on most people’s faces. The play itself does deliver such humor. Loud characters with foul mouths keep the tone light hearted. The play features music by Nicki Minaj and Donnie Trumpet, which makes for an authentic atmosphere onstage.
Within each raunchy character and dysfunctional relationship came sad truths about the way humans deal with pain and love. Every cruel action committed came from a hurtful past and an uncertain future. This meaningful theme goes throughout the story making every minute worth watching; although the setting of a funeral home with no funeral seems hilarious it was also the perfect backdrop to allow the real story to emerge. Each character is physically and mentally brought back to their unwanted pasts as they wait impatiently for their ex-teacher, Sister Rose, to return. The Church has forced them all into close proximity with each other, their own lives and the sins they have committed. They then become brutally honest with themselves, each other and the audience.
Each of the characters were brought to life by an energetic cast. With characters as internally conflicted as these, it is impressive how well the actors were able to walk the line between total disasters and characters in progress. The stage is expansive and well designed, adorned with small details such as alcohol bottles, wilting flowers and a confused looking bartender. Lighting changes were perfectly timed to gradually transition from the yellow lighting of a church corridor to the colorful, low lighting of a bar. Split between a local pub, a confessional and the pews in a church’s wake room, the play’s juxtaposing locations portray the internal battles of the characters onstage. The symbolic extremism of the sets allows the characters to naturally experience many of their worst days, and the two acts make the characters unseen pasts as youths in Harlem more imaginable.
Watching the play, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of ethnic diversity within the cast. The department went out of its way to make sure the play was representative of its setting in Harlem and this alone deserves applause. “Our Lady” dealt with people growing up in a part of town in which race, economic status and sexual orientation are scrutinized and each character’s personality reflects that fact.
With fear, freedom and laughter, “Our Lady of 121st Street” packs a punch. I am in agreement with the director, who noted that the play is beautiful because of its dialogue and its character development throughout.
“What is gorgeous is the dialogue and the character portraits. And of course the acting. If there is a ‘meaning’ to be unearthed, it has something to do with the ties that bind, and the grace that touches all of us in the simple act of trying to keep those ties alive,” said Jane Nichols, special guest director.
Tickets for Seattle University’s production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” are on sale until Feb. 28.
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