24, 7, 365 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Reviewed
Although Jennifer L. Nelson’s 24, 7, 365 is a world-premiere work by a D.C.-based African-American woman dramatist, its woodsy locale, philosophical musings, and farcical plot turns evoke Shakespearean comedy at least as much as they do contemporary, satirical dissections of class or race-based conflict. That’s no bad thing.
Johnnie (a brittle Deidra LaWan Starnes) is a social worker so devoted to helping battered women that her husband Jan (a likably mellow Michael Kramer) has to beg her not to bring her phone to bed. He’s a geologist but it's their union that’s on the rocks, and Jan hopes a weekend camping trip to celebrate his 47th birthday will help them reconnect. Predictably, Johnnie has a tough time decompressing, despite having invited additional diversion in the person of her less altruistic but equally hard-charging brother (sturdy Craig Wallace). He in turn brings his dumb, shrill, panicky, and generally insufferable intern-turned-girlfriend, Shovondra, a woman whose attraction he explains as “young, pretty, not too ghetto, plays well with white people and sexy as hell.” She’s written to be a nuisance, and actor Fatima Quander honors the playwright’s intention and then some when she isn’t the blunt instrument of some of Nelson’s sharper jokes, railing at one point against “you stuck-up, boozy Negroes—no offense, Jan.” Why is that funny? Because Jan is the only white character present, and he’s so white he’s actually Danish.
The first act is strong, cannily drawing us in until we’re rooting for Johnnie and Jan’s reconciliation to succeed. Act Two is less convincing, turning on an action by Johnnie so inconsistent with the character Nelson and Starnes have created that splinters stick out of our suspension of disbelief by the time the playwright is done bending it. Nelson’s insistence on making all of her creations virtuous types whose flaws need only to be gently chipped away like ice off a windshield reflects a view of humanity more admirable for its optimism than for its plausibility. Still and all, she and director Juanita Rockwell keep things moving at an agreeable clip, and actor/rapper Baye StraightForward Harrell is a calming, magnetic presence on stage whether you believe the circumstances of his character’s appearance or not. Daniel Ettinger’s efficient scenic design conjures several other locales around the focal point of the campsite dominated by a large tree in which a drunken Jan spends much of the second act. The upper branches of that big, mysterious oak start to look awfully appealing for a minute when Harrell’s character starts freestyling off of the phrase “You need food for the soul as much as you need food for your gut.” But by then the likable ensemble has accumulated enough goodwill to keep your feet on the ground.
24, 7, 365 runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center to Feb. 27.