THE BASICS: MAGNOLIA BALLET, a new play by Terry Guest, directed by Carlos R.A. Jones, starring Richard Satterwhite, Nigel Reynolds, Dennis Anthony Wilson, and Shawn Adiletta, is presented by the Alleyway Theatre, with all evening performances at 7:30 pm Thursday – Saturday through October 1 including one matinee, Saturday afternoon, September 24 at 3:30 pm. One Curtain Up Alley (between Pearl and Main along the back wall of Shea’s) Buffalo NY 14202 716.852.2600 alleyway.com
Runtime: 90 minutes, no intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The central story is that of Ezekiel, a Black gay/queer teenager, and his father, after the mother’s death. Neither of them talk about that. Living in the deep South, he’s haunted by both the present and past ghosts of slavery, racism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. But when he discovers a trove of forbidden love letters among his late grandfather’s belongings, Ezekiel decides that maybe he doesn’t have to be a victim any longer. You don’t need a big-budget TV series to tell a compelling multigenerational story. The Alleyway does it in 90 minutes with just four actors in the fierce, funny, intense MAGNOLIA BALLET.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: With Spanish Moss hanging from the trees, as we look in on a rudimentary kitchen and a porch, we can’t decide where the house ends and the earth begins. Nearby is a shed filled with all sorts of detritus that’s collected there over time – various tools and crates, bags and bottles, broken boards and memories. It’s a place where a teenager can go to think about things and, as it happens, where the ghost of a grandfather can offer some grandfatherly advice.
We soon learn some things about the family that lives on this plot. The mother has died, and both the surviving father (Ezekiel Mitchell played by Richard Satterwhite) and his son (also Ezekiel, or “Z,” played by Nigel Reynolds) feel the pain, but don’t talk about it. There’s also the deep multigenerational pain, going back to the voyage on a slaver’s ship, ultimately landing in the new world. A ghost (Dennis Wilson) occasionally appears to remind us of those who have gone before.
The father is hard on the son, trying to prepare him for the harsh realities of life, but all young Ezekiel wants to do is visit his school friend Danny (played by Shawn Adiletta), ostensibly to work on a project, but there is definitely a homosexual attraction between the two. As director Jones writes, this is a “Black gay/queer male coming of age story” the kind of which he notes “seldom, if ever, finds its way to the theatrical stage.” By the way, Jones gives a nod to Columbia Law School’s Kimberle Crenshaw whose work has been foundational in critical race theory and in “intersectionality,” a term she coined to describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice.
As director Jones writes, this is a 'Black gay/queer male coming of age story” the kind of which he notes “seldom, if ever, finds its way to the theatrical stage.'
Danny’s home life is completely different from Ezekiel’s. He is white and seems to have an easy relationship with his policeman father as the two joke and wrestle, and whenever Danny’s father leaves for work, he always gives his son some spending cash. But Danny is also tortured by the ghosts of his family, including horrific racial crimes committed by his father (also played on stage by Richard Satterwhite in a brilliant bit of theater). He’s worried that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And he should be worried.
This is a play about the convergence of past and present and I believe turns the oft-quoted Shakespeare line “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves” on its head. The idea that we (ourselves) are responsible for our own actions, not fate (or the stars), is held by all the characters at the beginning of the play. In the end, I believe each is convinced that perhaps the weight of generations might be compelling them. Yes, ultimately they do take responsibility, but it doesn’t come easily.
As both a son and a father of a boy myself, MAGNOLIA BALLET hit home. But what made this a great night at the theater was the intense performance of Richard Satterwhite as the elder Ezekiel. If you’re unfamiliar with this local actor, he has the fluid physicality of, say Denzel Washington, coupled with the intense “Don’t f*** with me” face of Lance Reddick (Bosch, The Wire, the Hotel Manager/Charon in the John Wick franchise). When Satterwhite is on stage, that’s where you’re going to be looking. And, as mentioned, he does double duty, as two fathers – both the black and the white dad.
This is not a plot-driven play although there is a very dramatic conclusion. It’s much more of a character-driven play where the actions of the characters serve more to illustrate who they are. As the saying goes: “Actions speak louder than words.” And we learn a lot about the two dads and the two sons from their actions.
The two sons are played by two SUNY Fredonia grads, Nigel Reynolds as “Z” and Shawn Adiletta as “Danny” and a shout out to both of these young men in their 20s ably playing young teenagers. Although we see it all the time on television sit-coms, it’s no easy thing to play a character close to your age, but not your age. Of course, some of the credit has to go to director Carlos R.A. Jones who was able to keep each character distinct and focused.
Dennis Wilson is listed in the playbill as “Apparition” and he does make a good ghost, but he was phenomenal as the embodiment of the dead mother. It was actually pretty funny, and that’s not a bad thing in this intense 90-minute drama.
Let’s talk about the Alleyway Theatre.
Have you ever looked at one of your favorite theater’s line-ups for the season and thought “Meh… I’ve seen all these shows before?” That’s never going to happen with The Alleyway because brand new shows is what they do and have done for 42 years. They’ve begun their 43rd season with a winner that has a different launch protocol from many other Alleyway shows. As the (new) Executive Artistic Director Chris J Handley writes in the playbill, MAGNOLIA BALLET is part of the NNPN or “National New Play Network” which creates multiple opportunities for any one given playwright’s work to be produced in several cities.
I’ve seen something similar at Buffalo Philharmonic concerts where a consortium of orchestras will commission a new piece of music and then each will introduce it to their home audience. It’s served the BPO well for a number of years. Here the NNPN calls it a “Rolling World Premiere” and hopefully this design will open doors to more high-quality plays. Already, Handley mentions, this play has been called “Pulitzer material.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!