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Camden Repertory Theater strives to give voice to women’s stories by telling the truth, no matter how painful or embarrassing it is. The world premiere of a play by Desi P. Shelton realizes this mission with bittersweet humor. Shelton founded Camden Rep in 2006 as a means of reaching audiences not used to seeing themselves on stage. Child Support, running October 13-28, 2023, is a full-length, stand-alone sequel to Shelton’s I Killed My Baby’s Daddy, a solo piece about a woman trying to move on by “killing” feelings for the father of her child. Shelton’s new work frankly examines single motherhood, financial responsibility, and a broken system.
A losing game
Children can lose when adults play the game of love, the program notes observe, and “[f]or women of color, this can mean losing everything.” Child Support’s site-specific setting in a Camden row house confronts viewers with the magnitude of the game’s stakes. The sidewalk on the theater’s residential block is decorated like a Monopoly board, complete with a life-sized Community Chest. Giant Chance cards feature slogans like, “Advance to the nearest abandoned house. You can buy it for $1. You must redevelop within a year.” At the preview, fried chicken and Carlo Rossi were served al fresco while a DJ played music. The program was available through a QR code stuck to a scratch-off lottery ticket.
Shelton, who stars as single mom Ajani, bustled about before the house opened, letting the audience know that we were waiting for Dad. Yet, Child Support began before his arrival, and the play established that the person we awaited was Nick, Ajani’s ex and the father of her daughter Muff (Chyna Michele). Nick not only fails to make it in time, he never appears. In spite of this, Nick haunts Ajani, like the absent father who looms over characters in The Glass Menagerie or the characters waiting for the titular Godot in Beckett’s play.
As Child Support begins, Ajani and Muff are preparing for the prom. The audience takes their seats in the row home’s living room as Ajani hollers up the stairs to her daughter. They are already arguing about Nick, who paid for Muff’s dress but breaks his promise to see her off. Although Muff is named prom queen, neither she nor her mother enjoys the occasion. Muff blames Ajani for her father’s behavior, and both mother and daughter blunt their pain with unhealthy coping strategies. Ajani reaches for alcohol and lottery tickets, while Muff turns to self-harming. Like the oversized game pieces outside, Child Support goes big to make its point.
Truth behind the joke
Humor and music keep viewers entertained as the play tackles difficult themes. A band comprised of young musicians from Camden Rep’s PACE program and led by JoJo Streater plays live music throughout the play. An instrumental version of Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” plays during the prom preparations. When Ajani jokes about “waiting for a Black man to get his shit together,” the band launches into the Jeopardy! theme. Shelton portrays Ajani as a realistically flawed woman willing to laugh at herself, and her all-in performance is the foundation of Child Support. In addition to the lead role, Shelton plays Ajani’s opinionated cousin and a man who loiters outside the corner store.
Ajani’s scratch-off ticket kickstarts the play’s second half, in which her circumstances become a surreal game show. The living room bookcase opens to reveal an illuminated screen reminiscent of The Price Is Right. Ajani and Muff play the game of Child Support, featuring rounds of Family Feud and Password-style challenges. In one round, Ajani gives clues for Muff to guess answers like the Family Support Act of 1988 and the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998. During “commercial breaks,” an audio recording plays sober courtroom proceedings.
The game’s outcome is a foregone conclusion. Throughout Child Support, Muff expresses anger and resentment toward her mother, while Ajani remains deeply conflicted about taking action despite her desperate need for Nick’s financial support. Even as she lets her car insurance lapse to cover Muff’s expenses, Ajani compares suing for child support to a “modern-day auction block” that puts “price tags on kids” and contributes to a “financial lynching” of Black men. Ultimately, the characters in Child Support play a zero-sum game that has no winners, plenty of losers, and an unclear outcome. This result feels true. The play’s attempt to resolve Muff’s self-harming behavior is less believable.
Altogether, Child Support is like nothing you have seen before, and it will leave you curious about what’s next for Shelton and Camden Rep. The preview contained a few glitches that surely will be ironed out before the show’s run. Ozzie Jones’s direction keeps the play moving briskly, while the talented musicians and Anthony T. Howard’s game design help realize Child Support’s vision. This play offers food for thought for audiences of all genders and races, and it suggests that we all have much to learn about the real-world impacts of a broken system.
What, When, Where
Child Support. By Desi P. Shelton, directed by Ozzie Jones. $25. October 13-28, 2023, at Camden Repertory Theater, 445 Mechanic Street, Camden. (856) 438-8430 or camdenrep.com
Camden Rep is not wheelchair accessible.
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