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I hadn’t personally met playwright James Ijames (2022 Pulitzer winner for FAT HAM, now also a 2023 Tony nominee, and no, Philly will never get tired of saying it) until he was in the house for Wednesday’s premiere of Abandon, onstage at Theatre Exile in South Philly through May 21, 2023. He told me that this play is darker than his others, and it certainly was one of the most physically violent performances I’ve seen onstage.
So bear that in mind if you’re getting tickets to this run, especially if you’re sensitized to the particularly malevolent cruelty of choking—as we all should be, following a young white man’s horrific (but not shocking) murder of an unhoused Black man in crisis on the New York City subway this week.
Abandon follows Joshua (Jared Chichester), another young Black man in crisis whose life is so unmoored that he doesn’t even know his own age. Fleeing his brutal brother Chris (Carlo Campbell) and out on the mercy of a freezing winter night, he breaks into the home of Luella (Melanye Finister, in her Exile debut). Luella, who quotes the Bible as readily as Gullah lore, longs for the intermittent spectral presence of her adult son, Gabriel (Brenson Thomas), who communes with her about groceries, soap operas, and family wounds.
Finister and Thomas previously played mother and son in the Arden’s 2022 premiere of Backing Track by R. Eric Thomas (another celebrated writer with Philly ties who explores queer identities, grief, and family) and maybe that adds to the prickly and poignant bond the actors create here. Thomas reprises elements of his Arden role, with touching and funny cabaret interludes that illuminate his life and easily envelop the audience.
Campbell, rolling around the set like a cannonball, has a twitchy menace that helps make his younger brother’s more surprising actions legible as responses to trauma. Chichester seems to carry the weight and dissociation of that abuse in his bones, but also brings an aching vulnerability to his scenes with Luella. Under fluid and sensitive direction from Brett Ashley Robinson, Finister gives one of the most affecting and nuanced performances I’ve seen in recent years. She peels back the emotional layers of Ijames’s dialogue with a single look or word: a scolding is a welcome, a boundary is an embrace, and an affirmation means goodbye.
This is a story and a performance that straddles many worlds, both between the characters and within them, and between the stage and the audience. Sara Outing’s bisected set feels a little cramped in Exile’s modest black-box space. But Luella’s serviceable little green kitchen on one side and the brothers’ deteriorated den on the other allow the characters to ping-pong between them as easily as this script explores past and present. From the first moment, Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound signals a contrast of inner versus outer worlds, and nature (or spirits) versus human strictures, with a blowing wind and a ticking clock. Amanda Jensen’s lights give an authentic feeling to the domestic setting, with clarity and focus even in late-night scenes that are mostly dark. Jill Keys’s costumes add to the realism.
On opening night, fights by choreographer J. Alex Cordaro drew gasps from the audience, but the smaller choreographies of care and expectation—laying a placemat, washing a dish—were just as compelling.
Abandon is a darker work than many of Ijames’s others, but it also has moments of uplifting clarity. “Normal is hard to get off your skin,” Luella says. “I’ll take right over normal everyday.” It all swells to an emotional release that breaks open with the precision of a symphonic finale, making your heart sing and ache.
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Luella warns an intruder, and we believe her. And we know what we’re dealing with: Philly theater artists at the top of their game.
Know before you go: Abandon contains scenes of graphic violence.
What, When, Where
Abandon. By James Ijames, directed by Brett Ashley Robinson. $10-$40. Through May 21, 2023, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
Masks are required in the theater.
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