Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket by Dr. HollyHood and Jon Quest, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger, Ariel Xiu, and Vanessa Reseland. Read their bios at the end of the review.
By David Bernabo
In Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket, hip hop artists Dr. HollyHood and Jon Quest boldly stitch together each of their latest solo albums to present a consolidated tale of deceit, ruined love, and near redemption. Billed as a “hip hopera,” the song-based sections soar, pairing elegant rhymes and strong flow with interesting production that spans classic and contemporary eras. Given the requirement of a virtual performance, there’s also a willingness to experiment by including filmed music videos and split screen segments. Despite the ambitions, the performance tends to lag at points due to unpolished, somewhat indifferent acting and a script that doesn’t allow the characters to transform within the duration of the performance. For a work about people managing different types of love, there is little chemistry between the performers, which is made clearer when the performers truly groove in their respective solo settings.
Before the pandemic, in 2019, Dr. HollyHood aka Dr. Amber Epps and Jon Quest aka Jonathan Brown each released solo albums. Dr. Hollyhood’s Yellow Jacket charts the timeline of a woman’s relationship with a married man while Jon Quest’s Hollywood Divorce tells a similar story, but from a male point of view as the narrator fuels the disintegration of both a marriage and an extramarital relationship. For Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket, Epps and Brown merge the two records into one linear narrative, placing Amber and Jon in a budding relationship while Jon’s wife, Tori, grows more suspicious and reasonably enraged as the performance builds to a violent climax.
Whether on screen, stage, or page, the love triangle is a well-known storytelling device. The Bible has a unique love triangle with Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah, despite his love for her sister, Rachel; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night mixes things up with disguised identities; Harold Pintor based the play Betrayal on his affair with reporter Joan Bakewell, much to her chagrin; and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It ups the ante with it’s love quadrangle. Since the public generally understands the love triangle concept and can anticipate possible outcomes, the impact of this type of story really comes down to the execution of the work.
The best things about Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket are the song sequences. Amber and Jon, as characters, come to life when rapping (mostly pre-recorded tracks, though the spoken word sections are also really effective.) There’s swagger, elegant flows full of barbed phrases, and an ease of delivery. You get to know these characters through their rhymes. You hear their passion, their confusion, their disgust, and their desires.
On the opening song “Yellowjacket,” Amber raps, “I always got your back even when you oppose me / put me in the closet till you’re ready for proposing . . . We the best team, I’m embroidering the logo.” The second verse hints at some possessiveness without total commitment from Jon. We see Amber wavering between wanting this relationship and wanting to maintain her freedom, all while dealing with guilt that she is causing pain to Tori.
The next song sees Jon apologizing to his wife for being late. The song is an interrogation of sorts, as Jon’s wife asks, “who were you with?” to which Jon supplies a number of excuses and falsehoods. The song introduces a pattern that Jon generally follows throughout the piece. At every challenge, he doubles down with a new lie and digs himself deeper into a conflict that he can’t resolve. We also see a lean into a form of masculinity that borders on selfish dominance — “In this world, I got my word and my balls, but when my balls getting licked, I’m ignoring her call.” It’s interesting to see Jon turnaround and use these same appendages to play the victim — “they want to hang my nuts.” These aren’t exactly charming revelations, but despite what you think of the characters’ morality, these sections are fluid, bumping, and worthy of a deep head nod.
Beyond song, the characters’ internal thoughts are explored through conversations with friends and through a therapy session, where Jon sees a therapist, wonderfully-played by Leslie “Ezra” Smith. It’s a scene that looks to normalize the role of therapy in the Black community — “Black men need help,” says the therapist. The scene is engaging with Jon and the therapist trading lines, but the tone is confusing. The therapist subverts his own qualifications with jokes like “should we skip this session and go do psilocybin at my house?” and “I just got my license unrevoked.” Jon talks of his desires to become a better man and begins to investigate his life: a missing father figure, dwindling passion in his marriage, unanswered prayers. But with just one therapy session represented in the performance, there is no sense of growth or betterment stemming from that process. The next scene with Jon finds him slightly more aware, but still playing a victim of circumstance in a fight with Amber.
In the prologue text, there is a mantra of sorts, repeated to focus the audience’s attention on what the performance deems the central problem — “the only problem was that he was married.” Characters repeat this phrase throughout the performance, but it’s a phrase that rings a bit false. If this were one of those “fixed that for you” memes, the phrase might be reworded as, “the only problem was that Jon entered into a partnership with his wife and then chose to work around that.” But it’s interesting that at the start of the performance, the script is enabling the relationship between Jon and Amber, almost rooting for them to find a way to make it work.
It’s a bold move to place these autobiographical stories on the stage. While fictionalized, the piece airs a lot of personal laundry, but the review panel’s end takeaway was that the characters were just being mean to each other. There isn’t exactly explosive anger, but amidst the endless gaslighting and negging, there is little evidence to show why attractions grew in the first place — a fun freestyle that Jon performs for Amber over tacos is a nice exception. The phrase “I love you” is commonly verbalized, but proof of that feeling is presumably carried out offstage. Often, you can feel the stubbornness of the characters — the fact that everyone knows their relationship is in its descent, but they are hoping for some solution to turn it around, however unlikely it may be. It’s a feeling that is setup in the prologue where the flow of the Ohio River is reversed so that Pittsburgh’s three rivers are “colliding” instead of the more commonly accepted two-become-one series of events.
Tori, Jon’s wife, continually gets the raw end of the deal. The script finds multiple characters blaming her for Jon and Amber’s suspended relationship, despite providing no evidence of unreasonable behavior on Tori’s part. The fact that Dominique Brock, who plays Tori, emotionally engages in the story, supplying her character with real passion and visible anger makes it harder to believe that the character of Jon would cheat on her. Tori seems on the level. In fact, she seems cool and like the quiet hero of this story.
Given the need for virtual performances due to COVID-19, this work, more than any other New Hazlett CSA series performance, goes the furthest to define its own video style. Music videos are interspersed throughout the work, providing a sense of movement and intimacy — Amber raps to the camera walking down the street, Jon’s in the car driving home. Text messaging is portrayed as a triptych with a phone screen bisecting two performers. It’s a cool visual that is let down by the slow pace of the texting and the canned responses of the performers reading the texts. And split screens abound, replicating phone and Zoom calls. But where a director like Brian De Palma fills each second of each frame of the split screen with crucial information, Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket is more content to let conversations play out somewhat dryly. At times, it seems like performers are reading lines from their phone.
There are other ideas that don’t quite add up. The prologue text is styled like the beginning of a Star Wars movie and the performance’s title riffs on the book and film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both of the referenced works are full of twists and turns and characters reassessing their position while pursuing what they might deem their moral duty — stopping planetary genocide, solving a cold case murder and exposing corrupt assholes. We see the characters of Jon and Amber continually reassessing their situations, but concrete action to change their ways or positions in life are slow to come. The references to these blockbuster films are fun, but kind of random. Less confusing are the Pittsburgh Easter eggs hidden within the piece — shout outs to the Shadow Lounge and local music producer Herman “Soy Sos” Pearl and a glimpse of Damon Young’s book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
The delicate nature of the on-stage relationships is reflected in the on-the-nose, but beautifully rendered set, which depicts a house of cards. The set does a fantastic job of separating the stages into different rooms and personal spaces. In towering above the characters, the cards continually foreshadow the inevitable disintegration of these relationships.
Quest and the Girl with the Yellow Jacket feels like an experiment in a few ways — how to adapt musical albums to the stage, how to transition from being musical artists to theatrical artists, and how to tell stories in a pandemic. Some of the experiments work, but the gulf between the explosive rapping — the cleverness of the wordplay and rhythmic schemes and the charged emotions — and the less inspired acting tends to water down the songs. As Dr. HollyHood and Jon Quest’s first effort in this theatrical arena, the production is really admirable — the video is well-edited, the music production is great, and the general flow of the storyline is solid — but it feels like a draft of something that can be much more engaging, where the audience more viscerally feels the tension and dilemmas of the characters.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Vanessa Reseland is an actor and vocalist, who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working predominately in musical theatre as well as film and television, cabaret, and on new theatre works. She is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and has had her original music/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012. She is currently very happy to be back in Pittsburgh.
Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.