Keegan is currently presenting the regional premiere of N by Adrienne Earle Pender. This is a quick exploration of race, culture, and the heavy lifting Blacks did (and still do) — mentally and emotionally — in a white-dominant world.
It is when Kevin E. Thorne II as Gilpin is speaking that the play truly shines. His moments as the Emperor Jones are riveting. He speaks the patois as written — mostly — but the emotion comes from so deep inside that it’s like watching Icarus challenge the sun. As O’Neill, Jared H. Graham is adept at hiding his true feelings until he’s pushed by his Emperor Jones to see him as an equal. In some ways the performance feels very quiet.
Lolita Marie plays Florence Gilpin, Charles’s wife. For most of the play, she’s the supportive wife, the practical voice of reason, and a woman who armors herself against the slings of racism in her work as a maid by believing in her husband and protecting her family. One of the play’s most enthralling moments is at the end when she and Graham meet at Charles’s funeral. She’s courteous and devastatingly so and implacable in spelling out what that role cost her husband and her family. One wishes she had had a deeper role overall.
The set by Matthew J. Keenan is intriguingly trisected — the Gilpin’s living room on one side, O’Neill’s office on the other side of the stage, and the middle, back, and sides taken up by the set of The Emperor Jones. It’s an uneasy juxtaposition and underscores the tensions between the two men and the larger tensions between the races. It’s an innovative use of the space.
Lighting designer Venus Gulbranson mostly keeps the lighting at half mast. There’s always a sense of jungle twilight. Costume designer Paris Francesca created a half-ripped military costume for Thorne as the Emperor Jones that reeks of tragedy and events spinning out of control. The director, Nadia Guevara, keeps the tension building while taking tight, emotional control. It’s somehow more devastating than fireworks would be.