‘Mirrors’ by Azure D. Osborne-Lee at Next Door at NYTW. (Photo: John Quilty)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Mirrors, set in 1960, offers a sensitive view of a black lesbian’s existence within her church-going, rural Mississippi community. Its rough edges need finer directorial sanding, but strong performances and infusions of blues and gospel music help grip one’s attention for much of its nearly two-hour length. It’s taken Mirrors ten years, three staged readings, and a workshop production before receiving this fully produced (albeit low-budget) version. Far less worthy plays have been produced in a much faster time.
Mirrors, the first of playwright Azure D. Osborne-Lee’s works to be produced at Next Door by NYTW, is a relatively conventional domestic drama about maternal love. Its unconventional context focuses on the unexpectedly matriarchal figure of middle-aged welder Bird Wilson (Suzanne Darrell).
Bird suddenly finds herself the guardian of a high-strung, high-school girl, Alma Jean Pierson (Ashely Noel Jones), when Alma Jean’s negligent mother, Belle (Kayland Jordan), Bird’s former, longtime lover, dies.
Bird’s home in the fictional town of Etheridge (designed by Jamie Nicole Larson) provides the intimate backdrop: kitchen to the left, parlor at center, and steps to the bedrooms at the right. A raised area at the right provides a platform for acapella choral singing that sometimes accompanies scene shifts.
A tall, carefully covered standing mirror dominates the parlor. It belonged to the vain, fashion-conscious Belle, who haunts the play both in flashbacks and when she silently observes the living. Bird insists the mirror remain covered during the liminal period between life and death.
“I can’t have her immortal soul gettin’ stuck here,” she insists when Alma Jean thoughtlessly removes the covering. “I won’t have this house be a prison for us both!”
Although the action builds toward a melodramatic secret you may already have surmised, most of it is concerned with Bird’s struggle to look after the welfare of the rebellious Alma Jean (who calls Bird “a pathetic ole bulldyke”), even though she’s previously had nothing to do with her upbringing.
Bird’s arc also involves fighting to stand up for herself as a worthwhile woman in a town infected by narrow-minded piety. Alma Jean, seeking her own independence, resists Bird’s ministrations, particularly when Bird tries to interfere with the girl’s wish to marry Ray (Anthony Goss), a young car mechanic of questionable sincerity.
Two immaculately dressed church ladies, Constance (Natalie Jacobs) and Mabel (AnJu Hyppolite), wearing spot-on ensembles designed by Sabrina Bianca Guillaume, represent the town’s hypocrisy. Their holier-than-thou nosiness, which they refer to as “Christian friendliness,” is welcome comic relief.
On the other hand, despite Bird’s obvious orientation, it’s not clear just how much they understand of Bird and Belle’s relationship, gossiping about Belle’s “loose ways,” meaning with men, yet calling the “nasty” Bird a “devil” with whom Belle “shacked up.” Bird seems to be guilty in their eyes more because of her church-going absences than because of sexual impropriety.
Bird hasn’t been with Belle for years, which makes it odd that she’s assumed responsibility for Alma Jean. She does have her next-door neighbor, Louise (Joyia D. Bradley), however, a friendly soul who comes and goes freely and looks after Bird’s needs. It takes time, though, before we realize she’s Bird’s lover. As staged, she shows up so quickly in Bird’s kitchen when phoned she seems to be living on the porch. (Bird’s rotary-dialed calls, by the way, use only four digits at a time when seven had become the standard.)
The acting company delivers fine performances, with particularly good work from Darrell, who gives a well-rounded, finely nuanced portrait of a woman in extremis. Bradley is a consistently natural best friend, and Hyppolite and Jacobs excel as snobbish, snoopy gossips. But for Mirrors to shine more brightly, director Ludovica Villar-Hauser needs to quicken the pace, heighten the stakes, and add more musical background, both during and between scenes.
Mirrors is a good start for Osborne-Lee. Hopefully, it won’t take so long for the playwright’s next work to make its bow.
Fourth Street Theatre/Next Door@NYTW
83 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 22
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.