Welcome to Braggsville–A Review

By | July 2, 2017

BraggsvilleWe saw “Welcome to Braggsville” at the Seattle Center, performed by the Book-It Repertory Theater, based on the novel by T. Geronimo Johnson.

First off, let me say that the cast was stellar, and the leads were absolutely fantastic. They were in their roles in a way that led me to believe they weren’t acting; only the transformation over time during the show and conversations afterwards helped me see just how incredibly talented these men and women are. The four leads in particular were astonishingly fine. (Personal note: I know one of them, and while he was able to portray his character well, he was not “being himself.” He was acting.)

But the main point of this review is both the story and the show.

The story: it’s now, and we’re in Braggsville, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, a town that hoped once to be the capital of Georgia but is now just a small town where the white folks live way up here, and the other folks live down there, in the Gully by the Holler. D’aron, white with a stray apostrophe in his legal name, left Braggsville to attend UC Berkeley, and he returns with his three friends, Candace, a white woman, Charlie, a black man, and Louis, a Malaysian man born in America. D’aron left Braggsville to find himself, he thought, and returns to Braggsville to help them see themselves. He and his friends are going to interrupt the town’s quarterly (!) Civil War re-enactment with a “statement” and “diversion,” but as with all things theatrical, it goes horribly awry.  The vision of the director, producer, cast, and stage hands (these four students) descends into darkness and pain and terror. (Hint: blackface is never a good idea, people. Never.) There is violence, and love, and redemption, and disunion, and in the end, no one – no one  — is unscathed or unchanged.

This is a raw show, people.

The show itself is staged on a spare set, with just hints of where they are: a classroom in Berkeley, an airport terminal, a van, a kitchen in Braggsville, a backyard, a police station, an FBI interrogation room, a Klan rally. There is a simply amazing setpiece that wraps around the audience with what is sometimes trees and sometimes a mill and sometimes just the general idea of “this is where you are.” Wonderfully imaginative.

And driving this show, which is a mix of “traditional theatre” (the actors are interacting only with each other, not aware of the audience) are the moments of breaking the fourth wall, when the actors reveal their thoughts to us, the audience, and then the mix of the interlocutor, a spoken-word artist who speaks and interacts with them, with the audience, and with us together. 

This is not a show to simply watch. The staging and acting will not allow it.

And then the story itself requires you to pay very close attention at every line, because nothing is wasted, and at every moment people reveal themselves outside the person they wish they could be. The most noble, the most craven of these characters—all is not as it seems. These are humans with multiple impulses and desires, multiple lies they tell about themselves and the worlds they live in, multiple pains and multiple successes.

This is astonishing stagecraft.

I have tried to write for years, and the biggest problem with my writing is I don’t know how to tell the truth. I can use the big words or the small words, the essay, the poem, the novel, the stage play, and in every instance I feel as if I have done nothing but arrange words.

Some artists break out of that in their writing, and tell the truth. James Baldwin is one, and I cannot read his works without, every time, seeing him as an astonishingly great writer and human being.

And here is T. Geronimo Johnson in the same tradition of a truth-teller who is able to tell the truth, word by word, line by line, scene by scene.

Not a wasted word anywhere, and no scene ends without everyone revealing yet another true thing about themselves.

Go see this, while you can.