‘Hold still and sip the pain.”
It’s a brief, swift line, uttered kindly but fiercely by the wise, wary slave Azucar (Cathleen Riddley), combing the hair of the impulsive, 13-year-old Zuri (Dezi Soley). Azucar’s simple sentence is a strong early example of how playwright Star Finch will be weaving words together in
the stunning world premiere
of Bondage, presented through April 16 by Marin County’s AlterTheater ensemble.
Blending blunt prose with lush, intricate poetry, Finch does more than put lyrical words in the mouths of her richly rendered characters; she uses that language to create an atmosphere of off-kilter dreaminess, establishing concrete details—an island, a slave plantation, a stifling house, a dining room—then coating them in a mood thick with metaphor, fantasy, riddles, danger and a strong undercurrent of supernatural alternate reality.
It’s a style the playwright calls Afro-surrealism. What Finch used then in the service of a ferocious futuristic fable, she now uses in a tale rooted in the harsh history of American slavery.
Zuri, property of wealthy white plantation owner Philip (Shane Fahy), lives on a small, secluded island, where she’s been raised alongside Philip’s daughter, Emily (Emily Serdahl). Emily, whose mother died years ago under bloody, stigmatizing circumstances, has always thought of Zuri as a sister, the two of them inventing games ranging from the childlike and innocent to the stunningly bizarre.
You may never think of puppets in quite the same way again.
Despite Azucar’s warning that Philip is “circling” the light-skinned Zuri like a predator, the young woman tests her growing sexual powers in ways that give her a sense of control over her life and destiny, control Azucar knows Zuri doesn’t really have. Upon the arrival of Emily’s rigid aunt Ruby (Emilie Talbot), the tentative bond between Zuri and Emily is severely tested, as Ruby insists her niece step into the role of mistress, and that Zuri finally accept her place as Emily’s slave.
Director Elizabeth Carter, aided by a uniformly excellent cast and remarkable sound design by Gerry Grosz, skillfully matches Finch’s poetic language with choreography and eerie-beautiful mimicry. The ending, a breathtaking collision of gothic melodrama, Shakespearean climax and art-house cinema, is gorgeously staged and stunningly unexpected.
Rating (out of five): ★★★★★