Riffing on Marita Bonner’s play “The Purple Flower,” NaTasha Thompson’s “Lavender Terrace” carves out its own space
Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2021–22 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Lavender Terrace by NaTasha Thompson, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger and Kelsey Robinson. Read their bios at the end of the review.
By David Bernabo
In Lavender Terrace, playwright and director NaTasha Thompson updates Marita Bonner’s 1928 play, The Purple Flower, overlaying its message of identifying and overcoming oppression onto a series of specific and generalized events from the last century. With references to the Tulsa Race Massacre and the protests of the summer of 2020, Thompson walks the audience through 100 years of evolving oppression, culminating in a bracing story about gentrification and displacement. But this journey is not heavy-handed, and it is certainly not without beauty. Video, dance, and music are the main modes of storytelling, and they gracefully propel a narrative that is quite open-ended despite the origin point of the The Purple Flower. Abstraction and specificity play off each other until the third act when a tonal shift disrupts the flow of events and the audience is dropped into a poignant conversation about community and displacement. It’s fair to argue that one’s prior knowledge of the plot details of The Purple Flower alters the way Lavender Terrace is understood, but the overall effect is a hazy narrative that becomes clearer as the piece introduces and builds upon its storytelling tools.
Marita Bonner’s play The Purple Flower was first published in 1928 in The Crisis, a magazine founded by the NAACP with W. E. B. Du Bois acting as the magazine’s first editor. The play presents an allegory of racial discrimination in the United States, contrasting two populations–the Us’s and the White Devils, a controlling upper class, flush with wealth drawn from their oppression of the Us’s. The Us’s, writers Bonner, “can be as white as the White Devils, as brown as the earth, as black as the center of a poppy. They may look as if they were something or nothing.”
The play opens with a description of the Sundry White Devils; their soft hair and eyes betrayed by their red horns, red with blood, deceit, and unholy desire. “The White Devils live on the side of the hill,” writes Bonner. “On top of the hill grows the purple Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest. This flower is as tall as a pine and stands alone on top of the hill. The Us’s live in the valley that lies between Nowhere and Somewhere and spend their time trying to devise means of getting up the hill.” Despite the White Devils’ claim that if the Us’s work hard enough–cultivating the valley, building the White Devils’ houses–they can ascend the hill, 200 years of, essentially, slavery have passed without progress. The books written by the White Devils do not allow the Us’s to transcend the White Devils. Money accumulated by one of the Us’s does not amount to wealth or power as the White Devils will not accept it. The White Devils continue to sing, “You stay where you are! We don’t want you up here!” The play ends on the precipice of the Us’s revolt.
I’d wager that the audience that watched Lavender Terrace saw one of two plays, depending on their familiarity of Bonner’s The Purple Flower. Prior knowledge of the play’s plot is helpful in identifying parallels between the works. For example, the beautifully rendered, papery backdrop that is divided into three rough-edged sections pulls double duty by symbolizing the hill while also acting as a fragmented projection screen. In Act I, which is a one scene video piece titled “Framing the Genesis,” the spoken line, “resting with their bodies towards Nowhere,” is audible. This line provides a clue that the soft focused figures on screen are part of the Us’s. Their backs are facing Nowhere, their heads and arms and hands are reaching toward the hill, toward Somewhere, toward a place of prosperity and, once there, equality. On its own, it’s a beautifully impressionistic film, a pleasure to watch alongside the organic sounds of piano and upright bass clipping and looping. But watching within the context of The Purple Flower adds weight to the sequence.
If Act I announced that video was a character in this work, Act II puts video (filmed by Audrey Medrano) on equal footing with the cast of dancers (Cherish Morgan (also choreographer), Kontara Morphis, Simon Phillips). A trio of dancers in black robes begins to move together. When the dance stops, archival footage of a train and possibly a fire is projected on the back screen. A recorded jazz combo begins to play and a solo dance turns into a trio dance. A pre-recorded voice rings out, “getting up the hill is going to take all that’s left of me.” Another video–explosions, smoke.
This alternating sequence of dance and video runs through another few iterations. With each iteration, time moves forward. The dance sequences increase in pace. The music reflects a variety of Black musical inventions of the 20th century: jazz, funk, rhythm and blues; music with subtle references to Big Mama Thornton, Nina Simone, and Ray Charles. The projected video becomes more overt, transitioning from cropped and somewhat abstracted black and white films to recent footage of protests. Each character, once finished with their solo, removes their robe to reveal more personal clothing–a removal of bondage or, perhaps, a symbol of expanded personal freedom.
We see representations of joy, sacrifice, labor, and dreams through dance, and we see those emotions diminish while the characters remain on stage to view the projected video footage. But without fail, the characters build themselves up again, finding new ways to push the dial forward. There is a sense that personal experience of race cannot be handed over in any standard package. Each of the characters reacts to their situation differently, and while they work together as a team, as a community, each character has both their own dreams and their own ideas on how to proceed.
In Act III, the audience finds a new set of characters mid-conversation. Three tenants of the Lavender Terrace apartment building are discussing, amongst other topics, how a “no pets” rule is enforced unevenly depending on the color of one’s skin. They discuss how aspects of their public housing building are being upgraded. This upgrade comes with a rent increase, which complicates the careful balance of making little enough money to qualify for low income housing but enough money to cover ever rising expenses. A rent hike on a fixed income diverts money from somewhere: food, clothes, education, transportation.
If Act I blended almost seamlessly into Act II, Act III is a disruption. Text arrived in fragments in the first two acts, but Act III is a three-way conversation, sometimes tense and worried, sometimes tender and reassuring. The conversation topic centers on gentrification and displacement, recent additions to the lineage of Jim Crow laws, redlining, disinvestment, and urban renewal.
Our panel was reminded of local variations of this story. There’s a scene in Chris Ivey’s East of Liberty documentary series where spectators launch balloons filled with paint at the East Mall apartment building prior to its implosion. East Mall was built in 1970 as part of an urban renewal effort that redesigned the East Liberty neighborhood, demolishing 1,200 houses in the process. Thirty-five years later in 2005, the 160 units at East Mall (and 158 units at the nearby Liberty Park Apartments) were demolished for another round of urban redevelopment. Many of those residents were displaced to areas outside of the city proper where transportation and grocery store options were fewer. Some residents relocated to the Penn Circle apartments (demolished in 2009 to make room for Target) or the Penn Plaza Apartments (demolished in 2017 to essentially make room for a new Whole Foods store and other mixed-use buildout).
Throughout the performance, resting above the fragmented hill is an empty chair. It is well-lit but left empty for the duration of the performance. None of the characters get close to occupying it.
In Lavender Terrace, Thompson creates a beautiful sense of arc and dynamics. There’s a boldness to this narrative experiment — a ~10-minute video to kick things off? Sign me up! The performances were spot on with smooth transitions between scenes. Set design by Nina Gabriel Stumpf felt distinct but without specific time or place, and Rianne Lindsey’s lighting design was quite stunning. When the house lights came on, I was surprised that the work was over. Those 45 minutes flew by, and I was certain another act was forthcoming. Let’s hope Thompson’s comment in the Q&A that “there’s a bit more here” is a sign of things to come.
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 cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Else Collective, How Things Are Made, and Host Skull; 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.
Kelsey Robinson is a Brooklyn-born, rustbelt-reared performance artist. She studied musical theater at Point Park University, then returned to NYC, where she collaborated on new musicals, contemporary operas, and puppet theater. As of 2017, a born-again Pittsburgher, Kelsey, has joined Bricolage Production Company in multiple immersive (DODO, the forest of everywhere, the clearing) that place empathy-elevating, improvisation over entertainment as well as participated as a Wordplay storyteller. She is both an actor and teaching artist with Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh Public Schools. As a founding member of FolkLab, she has been both an ensemble member and leader in devised company productions. Kelsey has appeared onstage with other notable companies, including Attack Theater, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, Pittsburgh City Theater, Afro Yaqui Music Collective. She has also received the support of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater as a residency artist in their FreshWorks program and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as a member of the Community Leaders Advisory Committee.