Hard upon the heels of “The Queen’s Gambit”—but written before that blockbuster film existed and first produced in 2005 — comes Berkeley playwright Anthony Clarvoe’s “The Art of Sacrifice,” a taut two-hander about a troubled chess champ and her ultra-controlling mother.
Clarvoe — author of such plays as “Pick Up Ax” and “Control+Alt+Delete”—wrote it as a father-son drama, but at the behest of the locally based Remote Theater reconfigured it for two women.
Performed by two topnotch local actors, Susi Damilano and Lauren English-Clarke, this is a reading within Zoom boxes, and you may find yourself wondering why they’re not in a room together, since Damilano is English-Clarke’s stepmother (and both are part of the close-knit SF Playhouse family).
But director Desdemona Chiang apparently had a specific concept in mind in separating them physically for Clarvoe’s layered, complex play, and her concept works to a certain degree despite the inevitable viewer Zoom fatigue.
Nora (English-Clarke), former U.S. chess champ at 17 and now, a decade later, reclaiming her title, has briefly left the tournament she’s in, just for tonight, to visit her mother and biggest fan, Willa. Why is Nora here when she should be preparing for an especially challenging game the next day? “It’s not about winning anymore,” declares Nora, “unless I’m here [with you].”
Various reasons for Nora’s visit arise, among them: Is Mom coming unglued? (She’s apparently sleepless and anorexic, according to Willa’s doctor, whom Nora says she’s consulted.) Or is Nora here because her brother asked her to run interference—to keep Willa from obsessively trying to teach chess to his children?
Along the way, as more and more family issues arise, it appears that Willa has molded her perhaps unwilling and helpless daughter into an obsessive chess-playing machine, starting her on the game at age 4, desperate for her to become the world champion, even, oddly, depriving her of food along the way. “You are a warrior in the cause of logic and beauty!” exults Willa. In full crazy-stage-mother mode, she’s disruptive at chess matches, as we learn, and we see that her speech is unfiltered, driven, harsh. Did Willa raise Nora as a freak?
But Clarvoe’s story is nuanced, and full of surprises.
The ways that mothers and daughters interact, the ways they influence each other, for better and for worse, is an endlessly fascinating and drama-worthy topic, and Clarvoe has mined and distilled one particular such scenario to its full potential. With an original score by local composer Paul Dresher, and such fine-tuned performances, it’s an engrossing 70-minute Zoom ride.
“The Art of Sacrifice” streams on demand March 22-29; visit https://remote.theater/home/#upcoming for details.
Father-and-daughter relationships, too, offer depths to explore dramatically, and Chicago-based playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza does just that and much more in her four-character play “[hieroglyph],” an intriguing Lorraine Hansberry Theatre/SF Playhouse coproduction that was filmed recently on the SF Playhouse stage to an empty house and is streaming on Vimeo.
Such filmed-onstage productions — especially with such strong acting and direction, and a crack design team (including Bill English’s revolving set)—feel fairly close these days to a live performance.
In “[hieroglyph]” (the title refers to a particular symbol that’s integral to the plot), 14-year-old Davis (Jamella Cross) has recently been relocated to Chicago with her janitor father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where they’d been housed temporarily in the Superdome. Mom stayed behind in a FEMA trailer; the marriage is currently unstable.
Troubled, bereft Davis is suffering from multiple traumas, perhaps the least of which is simply trying to fit into a new school environment. She’s bright, an extraordinarily gifted artist. Her warm and intuitive art teacher, Ms. T (the always appealing Safiya Fredericks), considers her “beautiful … peculiar.” Her father’s worried that her grades in more academic subjects, like algebra, aren’t so good. “She needs time to adjust,” Ms. T tells him. “She doesn’t have time!” thunders Ernest, who knows just how hard a Black person needs to work to compete on a non-level playing field.
As the 90-minute play continues, we’re not just inside Davis’ head — by way of multiple, visceral nightmare sequences — but we also gradually come to know and care about Ms. T, who says she doesn’t want to be strong all the time (“Sometimes we want to be soft”), and Davis’ only friend, a sexually precocious risk-taker (played by Anna Marie Sharpe), who believes she’s in control because “If I give it away, can’t nobody take it.” All four are deeply scarred in one way or another.
But there’s simply too much going on in this dense play — too many nightmares, too many dance sequences, too many relationships frayed and then repaired, too many confessional monologues (one for each of the three main characters), too much foreshadowing of Davis’ biggest trauma and everything happens too fast for us to fully process.
Still, this is an involving drama, and director Margo Hall, the newly named artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry, draws emotionally connected performances from her cast. A coproduction like this one augurs well for the future of relevant new plays in local theaters.