"Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady" begins in sorrow and ends in praise. Between these bookends it takes its audience on a journey through a fantastical landscape peopled with goddesses, monsters and some dangerous, weapon-toting women.
This world premiere of Sharon Bridgforth's piece begins in the lobby of the Pillsbury House Theatre as audience members are invited to leave notes for their ancestors at an altar created from a jumble of prosaic objects: small tables, a battered suitcase, picture frames, flowers, a well-worn quilt. Three actors then begin a ritual procession that crescendos into song as they lead the spectators into the theater.
Christopher Heilman's set — a ceiling hung with streamers, the occasional odd hula hoop and a stage floor filled with odds and ends of furniture — is lent an ethereal, almost underwater quality by Michael Wangen's lighting design. PaviElle French lingers at the back of the house as the other three actors beckon her to the stage in a stunningly emotive exchange of musical call and response.
The actors then take their seats and launch into a series of magical stories that traverse generations, genders and archetypes as they explore anger, pain, loss and redemption. Bridgforth's poetic and richly textured language segues effortlessly between spoken word and song as the solid ensemble creates a series of fleeting yet crystalline characters, sporting colorful names and outsized attitudes.
Florinda Bryant's HoneyPot is a magnificently compelling embodiment of rage. Aimee K. Bryant sketches a hilarious portrait of Duck, a gun-wielding grandmother with faltering balance but an unerring eye for her target, while Kenyai O'Neal moves effortlessly between the roles of the simpering Miss Kitty and a cranky old man nursing a flask and a cigarette. French lends the piece a breathtaking singing voice and an emotional undercurrent that's as subtle as it is moving.
This production has been conducted as a staged reading since its opening, due to an actor injury, but the work of these four mostly static performers is so compelling that it's hard to imagine what more movement could add. Under Ebony Noelle Golden's assured direction, the ensemble uses Bridgforth's sparkling language and Mankwe Ndosi's evocative vocal compositions to create a bold and urgent narrative filled with fire, life and sudden flashes of humor.
At one point in "Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady," a character muses that "stories that used to be straight lines are circles." It's an apt description for the play itself, which compresses time and space to tell a tale that feels both weighted with mythology and freshly vivid.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.