'Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady' swims beautifully despite cast injury

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©2018 RICHRYAN Rich Ryan

For the second time this season, local theatergoers have the opportunity to reflect on a mermaid—able to thrive on land or sea—as a metaphor for gender freedom.

Pillsbury House Theatre
Jun 21st 7:30 pm
Jun 22nd 7:30 pm
$5-$25

This spring, Mixed Blood's Mermaid Hour centered on a trans tween. Now, Pillsbury House Theatre is going under the sea with the world premiere of Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady.

It's one iteration of an ongoing project by playwright Sharon Bridgforth, who's also creating a performance installation (debuting later this summer, in Texas) and other ways of exploring the eponymous character. In the show, the Black Mermaid Man Lady comes to people in visions: They sink beneath the waves as though tapping into a collective unconscious that's perpetually on the verge of becoming conscious.

The show is conceived as a "performance processional," moving around the Pillsbury House space. Due to an injury that's restricted a cast member's movement, though, recent performances have been presented as staged readings. Theater staff can provide updates on the status of upcoming performances, but the show is certainly worth experiencing even in its more circumscribed form.

Pillsbury House's Mainstage has been decorated, by set designer Christopher Heilman, with aqua-toned streamers and collections of objects that give the space a sense of sacred festivity. The tools at lighting designer Michael Wangen's disposal include a neon hoop that suggests... an underwater moon? The circularity of time? There's a lot to think about here, but also a lot to captivate the eyes and ears purely on a surface level.

It's a storytelling show that begins, even in reading form, with a short procession from the lobby into the theater. The four superb cast members (Aimee K. Bryant, Florinda Bryant, PaviElle French, and Kenyai O'Neal) sing, sometimes wordlessly and sometimes with poignant turns of phrase as they settle in for a series of stories that assume our familiarity with a family of characters who we come to feel that we do know: grizzled elders, impetuous youths, swooning lovers.

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©2018 RICHRYAN Rich Ryan

The stories are set in the American south, with the actors switching among characters with rich accents and long memories. There are comic incidents and long journeys, gnomic utterances, and loaded guns, all seamlessly woven into a tapestry of song drawing on gospel, blues, and jazz. Characters and costumes flow readily back and forth across gender lines, but the themes of queerness are just as often implicit as explicit. There's a profound sense of truths that are known but not spoken, wounds that are healed with quiet understanding.

It's no wonder that Mermaid Man Lady is a project that can't be contained on a single stage, or within a single show. Bridgforth and director Ebony Noelle Golden have created what dramaturg Alexis Pauline Gumbs, in a program note, describes as a "moment of radical presence," but it's one that comes with a powerful sense that there are infinitely more moments to be discovered—and an urgent need to do so.

IF YOU GO:

Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady
Pillsbury House Theatre
$5-$25
Through June 24


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