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Money well spent

Azuka Theatre presents Erlina Ortiz’s Young Money

In
3 minute read
A scene from the play. Tolentino wears a red shirt & purple hoodie; Bey fishnets and long blond hair. They both look wistful
Delving deep behind closed doors: Johanna Tolentino and Angela Bey in Azuka’s ‘Young Money.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

The fates of two women collide in Young Money, the engaging new play by Erlina Ortiz that opens Azuka Theatre’s return season. Diametrically opposed on the surface but with more in common than you might expect, they come together in a catastrophic moment and show the ways people construct identities and personalities that obscure their true selves.

Throughout the 90-minute one-act, Ortiz balances the lighthearted and the serious, the tender and the terrifying. We find ourselves in the posh dressing room of Kila-T (Angela Bey), a rising rapper with enough self-confidence to fill a football stadium. At least that’s how she carries herself—when we first meet her, in an unguarded moment, she seems unbalanced and unsure. Is her vibrant costume and eye-catching yellow hair merely a costume, a suit of armor that protects her from the world’s judgment? How much of Kila-T is still Tomasina, the given name she reveals without much fanfare?

It falls to Gardenia (Johanna Tolentino) to find that out. She is another presence in the dressing room, amid the racks of designer clothing and amassed swag. (Marie Laster designed the immersive set, and Natalia de la Torre supplied the pitch-perfect costumes.) Gardenia starts out invisible—barely sensed, let alone seen—as she silently cleans the digs while Kila-T is heard distantly onstage. She carries herself from her first entrance with an unspoken dignity and self-respect that’s impossible to miss.

Survival and connection

When the two women are suddenly forced to bolt the door together, they pass the time delving deep into their pasts. We learn that Gardenia was let go from her longtime job at a bank, that cleaning is a means of survival for herself and her family. We learn too that Kila-T’s confidence ebbs and flows, even when she is outwardly boastful. Costumes, and the social cues we take from them, can count for a lot.

Bey and Tolentino strike an easy rapport. Each can hold the stage on their own, but the production really shines when they find themselves locked in discussion, sussing out the elements of their personalities they’d prefer to hide. Tolentino excels especially at showing how Gardenia’s sense of rectitude is a hardened shield of armor, how she’s trained herself to keep everyone and everything at arm’s length as a form of self-preservation. Bey shows us Kila-T/Tomasina from every angle, equally adept at the raucous and the introspective.

Right play, right time

The play’s tension begins to flag after the exciting first hour. Ortiz has built her drama around a chaotic event—which I’m taking care here not to spoil—but at times it’s easy to forget that danger lurks just beyond the walls of the sealed dressing room. Briana Gause’s direction slackens somewhat as the play flattens out. The final moment of triumphant resolution feels anticlimactic—perhaps because our investment lies in Kila-T and Gardenia as rich, complicated people, rather than in the framing device that comes and goes.

Despite the slightly unfinished quality of these later moments, Young Money feels like the exact type of play Azuka should be staging right now—a show that centers the voices of complex, intricate characters, given vivid life by talented performers, and ushered to the stage by a young, diverse creative team. The entire Azuka season will highlight the works of Philadelphia playwrights, with premieres from James Ijames and Val Dunn coming in the spring, and tickets are once again available on a pay-what-you-can basis. Whether you shell out $10 or $100, Young Money is money well spent.

What, When, Where

Young Money. By Erlina Ortiz, directed by Briana Gause, Azuka Theatre. Through November 21, 2021, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. Pay what you decide. (215) 563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.

Full vaccination is required for all audience members, and masks must be worn inside the building at all times. Performances of Young Money are being sold at a reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.

Accessibility

The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with private all-gender restrooms.

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