‘Semblance’ at New York Theatre Workshop raises more questions than it answers
Black women are not a monolith. Our skin tones range from coffee, light and sweet, to dark rich licorice. We enjoy different genres of music, eat a variety of cuisines, journey down a host of career paths, and have original styles of dress. And still, the world constantly lumps us all together as if we are one, all living the same experience. Whitney White, writer and director of the new filmed theatrical experience, Semblance, attempts to initiate an examination of how the New York Theatre Workshop audience perceives and interacts with Black women and their femininity. But the goal is mighty and White never is able to meet it.
NYTW is transformed into an intimate movie theater. Only this space is carpeted with bright green artificial grass, and glimmering rose gold fringe hangs on all four walls. The room is grounding. The cushioned seats are perfectly socially distanced and a playlist featuring Edna Hicks, Ma Rainey, and other of Black female jazz artists of the '20s plays softly through the speakers to prepare you for the experience. Except, in this show, there is no stage or live actors. Two large film screens are adjoined side by side, later proving that each serves a distinct purpose. While the space is comfortable and visually appealing, the design feels disconnected from what ultimately appears on screen.
Actor Nikiya Mathis (Skeleton Crew) as "The Women," proves to be White's only saving grace. She skillfully plays eight vastly different Black women with an array of strong personalities, mannerisms, and stories. "Do you get nervous when you look at me too long," the overwhelmed Sweetgreen attendant asks as she begrudgingly prepares a salad. On one screen we observe the attendant as she stands face-to-face with her audience, simultaneously on the other screen we watch her pick the salad ingredients, then mix and toss them together in a bowl. Getting to see both perspectives of work and worker help to heighten the senses of the story.
As a Black woman, I immediately connected and empathized with this character. I've been where she is, working at jobs where I was expected to do more for less, and smile about it in the interim. Mathis also portrayed a nanny and caretaker of a white baby she often refers to as "my child." As she sat in the park thinking out loud about what she was expected to do for this baby, I wondered why White had not included a vignette displaying the love between a Black woman and her own child. Whitney's women — the salad bar attendant, nanny, MTA bus driver, hip-hop artist, the unemployed person, and the office worker are relatable but all feel the same — discontent. I wondered where that Black woman who felt joy and happiness was, and pondered why Whitney purposefully left her out.
The Black woman is beautiful, multifaceted, and complex. And though this theatrical film may create conversation on who she is, or could be, it unfortunately left me with more questions about who we are, than I had when I walked in.
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