TheatreFIRST’s “The Last Sermon of Sister Imani” incorporates minimalist set design and dynamic characters to create a complex and interwoven story. Solely starring two characters, Danielle (Dezi Solèy) and Adrien (Jasmine Williams), the play focuses on their careers as hip-hop artists. When Danielle’s brother and soon-to-be naval officer C.J. is shot and killed by police while waiting for his parents in their backyard, Danielle is stunned into silence and later emerges with a new identity — Sister Imani. Adrien goes on to pursue a political career by running for a seat in Congress, and when the two women meet again under different circumstances, they end up in an altercation over conflicting opinions.
Despite the fact that there are only two characters in this play, the stage never feels hollow or empty. Thanks to the electric chemistry between them, Solèy and Williams are able to fill the space with their passionate spirit. Their wit sparks the dialogue, and their banter is rhythmic, almost poetic. The energy that comes from the two actors feeding off of each other is amazing to witness. The presentation of such enthusiasm with a limited cast is often difficult to execute, but the vivacity of the two leads makes them impossible to look away from.
The set of this production consists of simple geometric forms. A large rectangular prism takes up center stage, and two walls with square openings stand on either side. Upstage, wooden poles softly float in and out of the dark background like wind chimes, creating a rather peaceful, serene atmosphere. This clean minimalism could symbolize Danielle’s quest to find tranquility within her shattered world.
Interestingly, scene changes are indicated solely by lighting and the actors’ facial expressions. The stage lights are color-coded to indicate past or present. The play oscillates between Danielle and Adrien’s time as a hip-hop duo and their encounter after C.J.’s death. The constant fluctuation of mood between these two timelines exacerbates the stark contrast of the leads’ relationship in different settings. In a matter of a couple of years, the two friends have drifted far from each other, and their trust has disintegrated. Prior to C.J.’s shooting, both women relied on one another and spoke freely in their cultural vernacular, unafraid to throw the finger or mildly tease the other.
In the present, however, the two spurn each other’s intellectual philosophies and argue over the fate of their people in the United States. Even their way of speaking has changed drastically. Solèy and Williams are both extremely skilled at adapting to the rapid changes in demeanor, and such juxtaposition hits the audience with the weight of a single unfair death — showing that the death of one affects many in unfathomable ways.
Despite the play’s presented conflict in beliefs, the script does not seem to encourage the audience to pick a side. Curiously, both characters have equally valid points in discussing social activism, and empathy toward both sides only increases throughout the show. Perhaps the play is attempting to relay the message that it is so very difficult to find a universally correct answer in the face of injustice. Creating such an unbiased platform is complicated and rare. But “The Last Sermon of Sister Imani” pulls this off exceptionally.
In one scene, Adrien calls herself a reminder of all of the injustice and discrimination that Black people have endured and encourages Sister Imani to become more progressive in the collective fight. Sister Imani responds by telling Adrien to not cash everything in on a ‘three-word chant,’ in a subtle, yet directed reference to Black Lives Matter. The scene cuts to Adrien rapping about the death of C.J. and the other unarmed Black people who were killed by police in 2015.
Adrien raps, “Fuck you and your sympathy.” The scene creates a clear distinction between true empathy and mere sympathy, an important message in social activism. While sympathy involves feeling pity at a distance of safety, Adrien’s empathetic lyrics are a desperate call for direct action and participation against hatred.
In light of Black History Month, “The Last Sermon of Sister Imani” emphasizes relevant social issues and emotional trauma, effectively reminding the audience of the significance of Black Lives Matter and the push for basic human rights. The argument of the play is effective and clear in the end: The fight for racial justice is far from over.
“The Last Sermon of Sister Imani” will be showing at TheatreFIRST until March 3.
Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].