By ALAN SMASON
With the current COVID-19 pandemic creating new and interesting virtual meeting places, university campuses have been marked by responsiveness and ingenuity. Last spring’s virtual classes at colleges and universities across the nation and around the world, for example, sprang up within weeks of the initial shutdowns.
Today, with networking and infrastructure now expanded and hardened, the rich and resounding resources of sizable bandwidth and up-to-date equipment have made many college theatre departments enviable.
The University of New Orleans’ Department of Theatre and Film has, likewise, had to adapt to a virtual delivery system for its season and the first offering of this fall term is Lisa B. Thompson’s “Single Black Female,” a two hander usually seen with two women occupying and interacting on a physical stage.
This time out, though, the two graduate student actors – Alexandria Miles and Danielle James – actually occupy two different physical spaces, but through the miracle of the internet and director Richon May’s designs, they look like and interact with one another as if they are on a single stage.
The two take on the challenge of what it means to be Black professionals in an unforgiving world and how unlikely it is that they will ever find love, much less find a mate and get married. The statistics abound early on. White women are 76% more likely to be married than Black women, Miles’ character, SBF-1, a university English professor, cites. According to the U.S. Census,”41.9% of Black women have never been married…and 57% of Black children reside in single Black homes,” she informs us.
Citing another factoid that might make Neil deGrasse Tyson shake his head, the more education a single Black female gains, the less likely are her chances at matrimony. “She is more likely to be hit by a meteor than find a husband,” Miles announces.
With their wine glasses in hand, these two divas prepare to expose the “Black woman problem” with snappy repartee and clever dialog. Written in rapid-fire fashion with their tongues squarely in cheek, Thompson’s characters live out loud and proud, flashing sharp wit and sisterhood as they both support and are openly critical of each other. One cannot confuse this with a certain female vehicle that endured on cable. “This is not ‘Sex in the Inner City,'” James points out. (Do we perceive, perhaps, hidden razors in their Manolo Blahniks?)
James’ character (SBF-2) is an attorney who has found love in all the wrong places and usually with the wrong man in a succession of failed affairs. SBF-1 is someone who might be termed as pansexual and is keeping her options open, having had a late-1990s fling with being a lesbian, but who identifies as a binary cisgender these days.
These are two thirty-something liberal, professional women with conservative values who find their friendship tested during these flings with their various relationships. Former roommates after college, they keep coming back to console each other and to buy new clothes whenever they are feeling a bit depressed. They are sisters on both a spiritual and contemplative level.
While they bemoan their claim that they are “invisible,” this play makes certain they are heard loud and strong.
Sometimes what they say may make uneasy audiences feel they have a bit too much attitude, but this work isn’t intended to make white audiences feel warm and fuzzy or at all comfortable.
Thompson’s play was nominated last year for the Black Theatre Alliance’s Lorraine Haspberry Award for writing and its easy to see why. Its two acts have lots of laughs and its many scenes operate on as many different layers as an onion.
For instance, SPF-2 is on a mission to go where few Black women have gone before. She is totally into mani-pedis and facials. “It’s the role of the Black middle class to integrate…” she begins.
“The spas?” SPF-1 says, finishing her sentence.
“Yes. The revolution!” SPF-2 concurs. “One massage at a time.”
The two admit that churches are a good place to meet potential mates, but who has that much time for church? Perhaps picking up a trick she learned in church, SBF-2 cues us in as to how to intentionally repel a man who is making unwanted advances.
“Woman, you sure look nice. Can I get me some of that?” Miles pretends to be a would-be street suitor with his ballcap turned to the side.
James counters with a question in her mind: “Why would you say something like that to a stranger…on the street…at 11 a.m…on a Tuesday?” But she quickly changes her demeanor and with a big smile turns to him and replies “I was thinking the same thing young man. Do you know your Maker is Jehovah in your life?”
“Oh, my God,” the punk replies, registering immediate disappointment and disinterest.
“Going evangelical on a man hasn’t failed me yet,” SPF-2 admits proudly. “They all run for the hills.”
But they do not limit themselves to being critical of men. They hurl some of their worst insults at other Black women, whom they describe as “E-V-I-L.” SPF-1 acknowledges: “We don’t even see each other.”
One of the better scenes involves the two bonding with each other over using the internet for finding a mate for SPF-2. SPF-1 helps SPF-2 create a profile on Match.com. (E-Harmony is ruled out due to its excessively long survey questions.) Once the name is selected (“Cocoa Lawyer”), the fun begins. SPF-1 helps move the process along.
“I’ll take anything breathing in a tri-state area,” SPF-2 proclaims, noting that Barack Obama is unavailable the last she checked.
But then, she gets very specific: “You want to know what I really want?” she says dreamily smiling and going into a . “Give me a rough nig**r with a law degree who pulls my hair and spanks me,” she starts to describe an impossible figure from “Fifty Shades of Black.”
Another scene is the dehumanizing experience SPF-2 has at the hands of the gynecologist with Miles pretending to be the clueless male doctor. The doctor’s directions are downright hilarious, but his bedside demeanor could shake the confidence of any Black female.
The Holidays bring a similar head shaking time for SPF-1, who despite a newly-acquired Ph.D. ,can’t make her aunts happy or keep their inquiries at bay about when she is going to be married.
The second act reveals more personal aspects for each character and why they find themselves single at present. In the end the two agree they have done what society expected of them. They earned professional degrees, invested in 401Ks and IRAs and bring all of their self-assuredness and confidence to the table only to find that the black males have run off with white women.
If all marriages are doomed to fail at 50%, why do these two feel so left out? In the end, they admit they are both still little Black girls who want to be swept off their feet and made to feel loved “like chocolate magic sunshine.”
Both Miles and James are terrific in their interpretations of the characters and use their acting skills to great effect so as to make one forget they are not in the same room. There is a genuine connection to each other that transcends the printed words on the page.
May’s very tightly woven interpretation is punctuated with lots of hip hop favorites that keep the actors moving and the audience pulled ever more tightly into their world, eventually ending with Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” a fast-paced anthem that served as the theme of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Even Oprah would be proud of this show and, after all, despite all of her millions, she and Stefan have yet to tie the knot. So, like the titular characters in this play, Oprah, too, is a Single Black Female. It’s enough to make any woman go out and shop.
Single Black Female by Lisa B. Thompson is directed by Richon May and stars Alexandria Miles and Danielle James. It is presented virtually by the University of New Orleans Theatre and Film Department through Eventbrite with tickets starting at $15 for the public, $10 for senior citizens anf free for UNO faculty and students. Shows at 7:30 p.m. run now through October 3 with a matinee at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday October 4. The last shows are at 7:30 p.m. from October 7-10.