A transformation awaits at Marcia E. Cole’s A Matter of Worth as the house lights dim, and the stage is lit as a cotton field with layer upon layer of waves of white cotton. A barn stands to one side, two women are hunched over in the field, and a man works a hoe. Downstage children and a woman sit around a table as the woman holds a book. Hannah, played by Judy Leak, enters as the story-teller and there is an incredibly palpable moment of suspended space and time…the past spread right before our eyes gets framed in contrast with the present-day. A call/response flow between past and present begins. This back and forth whips into a striking rhythm that the ensemble carries in a poetic, music-like undertone throughout the entire play. Both sections are performed superbly with simple directness, no embellishment, and nothing is ever sentimentalized.
Tears roll down Hannah’s cheeks in a slow silent stream as she reveals how her son is taken from her:
They named him Q, didn’t even give him a name. Just a letter. They made us watch. The dogs about ripped the hide off him. They beat him Till he stopped hollerin’. They beat him Till he stopped movin’. Wouldn’t let us bury him. Any fool knows you can’t let a body there on the ground a spirit can’t rest that way.
Because of that nefarious unrest we are fortunate to hear the voice of a native Washingtonian writer, Marcia E. Cole. The local Women’s Voices Theater Festival has selected Live Garra Theatre to present A Matter of Worth. Cole has been awarded the College Language Association Creative Writing honor across three genres – drama, poetry, and short story. This is her first play. As her biography notes the work is a reflection of “her strong advocacy for literacy” and her belief that “the arts are essential to understanding the world we live in whether by examining the past or looking to the future.”
Please keep writing Ms. Cole; the country needs to hear your voice, the world needs to hear your voice! Your underlying messages are many. All ring true, especially those formidable words…”if you don’t know who you are…” and what and who you believe “is the only one who can set my worth” spoken from the mouth of the enslaved Hannah who knows there “must be something powerful about words” serves as a call to our shared humanness and being better human beings in every spoken word of this work.
The play’s director and Artistic Director of Live Garra, Wanda Whiteside, creates a painfully credible story-telling exchange between every character. Her direction essentializes every word and gesture down to its core. There are no frills. Just truth. Whiteside demonstrates an uncanny ability to let what is on the page resonate with the physicality of the actor. The story-reader or teacher, Karen Lawrence, gives pure, powerfully direct recitations that are punctuated and contrasted with the elder’s story-telling. This contrast works beautifully to build the poesy of the writing as well as take the audience on the arc of the play.
Christa M. Bennett, Antoinette Greene-Fisher, and Clyde McKnight give exceptional performances through use of masks, props, costume, and also through subtle physicality. Most memorable is their approach into the space of the audience calling and shouting every derogatory name a person can be called when seen through the lens of racism. This powerful moment leaving the “light” of the stage, coming into the “darkness” of the audience too is contrasted with other moments of joyous dance and rhyming song!
The re-creation of the auction sounds, the feeling of being suspended in time, the going backwards and forwards all support Cole’s theme of truly knowing one’s worth and resonates with her words: “blessed are they who paved a way to the future.”