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R. Eric Thomas’s Mrs. Harrison, Azuka Theatre’s third “pay-what-you-decide” world premiere this season, is surprisingly tidy and compact at only 75 minutes, though bursting with issues and intrigue.
Thomas proved adept with unique characters and timely issues in his Barrymore Award-winning Time Is On Our Side, but Mrs. Harrison adds levels of danger and mystery that show this playwright gaining power.
Not what it seems
The fancy ladies’ room created by Meghan Jones seems a likely place to find Danielle Leneé’s Aisha in her perfect orange floral silk dress. It’s less suited to Brandi Burgess’s Holly’s ill-fitting brown pants and blazer (costumes by Shelby Kay).
We soon learn that both are college alumnae attending a 10-year reunion — and that this isn’t an ordinary restroom but the provost’s secret hideaway, where Aisha found refuge as a student.
Two-person plays rely on revelation, and Thomas doles out his characters’ connections little by little, often leading us to assumptions that later prove wrong. Holly seems to be stalking Aisha out of jealousy over Aisha’s playwriting success, while Aisha apparently doesn’t even remember Holly from their playwriting class. But there’s much more driving their encounter.
Another typical element of two-person plays concerns the reason each character stays in the action. Why wouldn’t one or the other leave? At first, Holly physically blocks Aisha’s exit. But soon Aisha’s keenly interested in Holly’s work as a standup comic and storyteller, and even begins to take notes when Holly says, “Comedy is purgatory, but stories have an end.”
Burgess and Leneé are well-matched as smart, strong-willed, yet very different women. Thomas gives each fascinating stories to share. Moreover, Mrs. Harrison passes the Bechdel Test: neither is here because of a man, nor do they discuss men much.
Director Kevin Glaccum keeps the action between them lively as they converge over Aisha’s play, Mrs. Harrison. Did Aisha use a story Holly told her? If so, was this wrong?
Since the story was about the black maid whom Holly calls a “second mother,” does the story belong to white Holly, or is black Aisha better qualified to identify with Mrs. Harrison? “Honey,” Aisha says to Holly, “the things I can say that you shouldn’t…”
Suddenly, Mrs. Harrison’s conversations about stories—their connection to reality, their ownership—take on the larger issue of cultural appropriation. As with many racial issues, where we ally ourselves may depend on where we originate.
Both script and production carefully balance the characters’ points of view. Though Holly seems unhinged early on, Aisha proves just as desperate and unstable in her own way.
These issues have no easy answers, either in this particular conflict between Holly and Aisha or in our culture in general. Perhaps that’s why Mrs. Harrison ends with a meta moment that stops the play without concluding it. Thomas isn’t telling us what to think, but challenging us to think.
What, When, Where
Mrs. Harrison. By R. Eric Thomas, Kevin Glaccum directed. Azuka Theatre Company. Through May 20, 2018, at the Drake's Louis Bluver Theatre, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. 215-563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.
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