‘Between Us’ solo plays at TheatreFirst find common ground in message of resistance

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The voodoo queen sways across the stage, a study in graceful strength. Her uncompromising gaze captures the attention of her audience — she’s calculated and assertive as she laughs. “You think you came here to see a play? The spirit called you here because your energy is needed for something far greater than vanity.”

Thus began the first of four solo plays constituting Program A of “Between Us,” a study in underrepresented revolutionary figures, both historical and contemporary, at Berkeley’s TheatreFirst. The productions focus on a diverse array of individuals, locations and time periods, considering the rights of agricultural workers of color and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. almost in the same breath. Though each poignant and thought-provoking in their own fashions, each production ultimately revolves around what it means to lead a life at the brink of social transformation — what it means to be a change-maker.

Wasting no time on a lackluster start, the program opens with Dezi Solèy bringing Brit Frazier’s “Laveau: A Conjuring of Marie Laveau” to vibrant life. In the form of Madame Marie Laveau, Solèy enchanted the crowd in her portrayal of the life and character of the famed New Orleans queen of Christianity’s black magic.

A fully convincing Laveau, Solèy relays her mission of liberating enslaved people of her time period by means of resurrection: “I was in the business of setting black bodies free.” Frazier did not shy away from breaking the fourth wall, with Laveau directing a blessing toward the women of color in the audience. “Honor the miracle that is you,” she proclaimed, met with a wave of approving murmurs.

From 19th-century Louisiana to mid-20th-century California, Jeffrey Lo’s “Seven Fingers: The Story of Larry Itliong” considered a similarly underappreciated revolutionary. Though history widely attributes the 1965 Delano grape strike to Cesar Chavez, it was Filipino-American labor organizer Itliong who first orchestrated the revolt. As Lo reveals, Chavez followed suit.

Throughout his monologue, actor Mike Sagun not only brings to the stage Itliong’s unrelenting passion and dedication, but he also seamlessly transitions among depictions of the key players in Itliong’s mission to uphold the rights of Filipino farmworkers. Though primarily an account of a single life, “Seven Fingers” also considers the macrocosmic messages of union in revolt. As Itliong declared, “Us fighting for our rights inspired others to do the same.”

With Katie May’s “Pussy Hat: The Story of One Woman’s March,” “Between Us” takes a turn toward the contemporary. Though its hyper-recent subject matter made the piece vulnerable in attempting to depict a revolutionary movement whose influence history has yet to determine, the monologue exceeded all expectations.

“Pussy Hat” chronicles the emotional journey of one white woman, Sharon (Jennie Brick), as she moves to Berkeley from Iowa, participates in the Women’s March and then grapples with the implications of privilege as the March faces scrutiny for its lack of intersectionality. As a whole, “Pussy Hat” serves as a refreshingly honest acknowledgement of what it means to be a privileged individual in an unequal society. In the end, May provides a nuanced, though de facto incomplete, understanding what it means to be an ally. Her play, the only one starring a white person, implicitly urges the white members of the audience to work towards the inclusion and amplification of people of color’s voices.

Cleavon Smith’s “Just One Day: A Story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy” wraps up the event with an examination of the present-day implications of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as much more than simply an American federal holiday. The play follows Esther (Sam Jackson), a young Black woman, through a few hours of her day as she reflects upon gender, race and what it means for an employer not to allow workers — especially Black workers — to take MLK Day off.

Though simple in setting, with the only visible action of the play consisting of Esther organizing her room, the piece served as an impactful reminder of the resonances of historical uprisings through its context of the Civil Rights Movement. “Just One Day” affirmed the importance of individual actions, even the smallest of such, in the face of racial inequality today. Jackson masterfully straddled this delicate balance between a sense of everyday normalcy and the extraordinary potential of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

At the end of the program, Solèy, Sagun, Brick and Jackson bowed together to raucous applause and a standing ovation. They represented figures separated by hundreds of miles, hundreds of years. Yet together they stood, each of their performances paying homage to revolution — given a platform through the TheatreFirst stage.

“Between Us” is playing at TheatreFirst through March 10.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].