I was not prepared for the power of Two Queens One Castle. We came in to the theater out of a cold night that was hinting winter. I had avoided pre-press. The seats were hard in Mixed Blood Theater, but the audience was expectant, and for a moment I had the feeling of being in a tent awaiting the emergence of Elmer Gantry. Then the stage broke open with the voice of Jevetta Steele. I was not surprised that she had been nominated for an Oscar (for performing the song "Calling You" in Bagdad Café). I was not surprised that she had worked with Prince, Natalie Merchant, and Fine Young Cannibals. I was surprised that the show moved me as much as it did.
The story, based on Steele's own experience, is about unknowingly marrying a man who is bisexual. The story, though a personal one, is generalized through this performance to represent the experiences of many black women who have had relationships with gay or bisexual black men. Steele significantly avoids demonizing such men (though it is impossible to miss the bitterness that she feels about the experience); instead, she focuses her venom on deception.
This project is compelling in its composition. It opens and closes with song. Instead of settling on one genre and pulling it through the story. Steele uses jazz, R & B, gospel, and pop in 18 iterations to tell her story. This is precisely form meeting function. The sorrow Wife (Steele) feels pours out through the lazy syllables of jazz strung across the melody. The humor of the play - there is much - punches through pop presentations. A scene that explores the relationship of religion to sexuality, featuring Thomasina Taylor absolutely wonderful as the Reverend, inevitably but fittingly utilizes gospel.
Dialogue and soliloquy are woven through the work. Sometimes, the lines are melodramatic and nonspecific (surely a gesture of Steele's universalize the story and message), and evaporate in ambiguity.
James Rich play Husband, a charmer and Saville Row dresser who sweeps Wife (Steele) off her feet. In the beginning, however, she has reservations that she cannot quite name. The other performers play multiple roles. Taylor's turn as the Reverend is only one of her incarnations. Austene Van Williams-Clark and Regina Marie Williams, Williams intuitively as Wife's Mother, disappear and re-emerge as different characters. Dennis Spears plays several black gay and bisexual characters, simultaneously capitalizing on stereotype and reinterpreting expectations.
I do think, however, that the portrayal of black gay and bisexual men in the piece is flat. The experience of the women in the play was rendered in depth and texture, but the men fell off the map, reduced to liars and rapists. I came away understanding the position of these women, but not gaining significant insight into the situation of homosexuality in black communities. But a play cannot cover everything and I went back out into the cold with the songs of Jevetta Steele playing in my head.
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