Julia Brothers gives a touching performance in “I Was Right Here.” (Courtesy San Francisco Playhouse)

Julia Brothers gives a touching performance in “I Was Right Here.” (Courtesy San Francisco Playhouse)

Julia Brothers captivates in ‘I Was Right Here’

‘Trouble in Mind’ a timely study of racism in theater

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Julia Brothers is such a captivating performer, so unfussy, so clear and direct, so honest, that even watching her on a computer screen, as she’s acting on an almost-empty stage, you’re likely to feel emotionally invested right from the start.

In her new and very personal solo show, “I Was Right Here,” a San Francisco Playhouse production, she’s on a train, off to visit her mother in a New Jersey nursing home.

That real-time train ride provides an ongoing motif throughout the 80-minute journey, with the disembodied voice of a conductor announcing the stations. Off and on, Brothers muses on another significant train (Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train passing through her hometown when she was a child), recalls a particularly traumatic period of her life and wonders — as we are all prone to do as we age— about the reliability of memory. Were we really there, or are we simply remembering the stories we’ve been told?

Brothers talks directly to the viewer; she’s filmed quite effectively (video editing by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky) from various angles, and the play, directed by Padraic Lillis, is never static.

Puzzling out the mysteries of her past, sad at times in ways that feel specific and at the same time universal, she’s also often quite funny.

At other times she channels her beloved mother, or her own younger self sobbing in teenage sentimentality over a record of her beloved Beatles singing “This Boy.”

What at first appears to be a nostalgic portrait of a sensitive girl growing up in Middle America gradually becomes layered and complex. (Truth be told, the play’s themes don’t emerge until about two-thirds of the way in; the early and fairly generic depictions of childhood could, and should, be trimmed for the sake of focus and, ultimately, potency.)

Brothers is a gifted, fluid writer. The trees outside her girlhood bedroom window, she says, told her stories — You know, the way trees do.” And the show’s smooth sound design (by Teddy Hulsker), with train whistles and era-appropriate music, turn this reminiscence into an intimate and visceral stage piece—even though, for right now, it’s not actually live.

“I Was Right Here” continues through April 17; tickets are $15 to $100; visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020.

Patrice Johnson Chevann and Steven Anthony Jones are excellent in the staged online reading of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind.” (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)

Patrice Johnson Chevann and Steven Anthony Jones are excellent in the staged online reading of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind.” (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)

In Alice Childress’ 1955 drama, rehearsals for a Broadway play devolve, soon enough, into emotionally intense in-fighting with implications that go well beyond the walls of the theater.

The director (white, played by David Harbour) and multi-generational cast of two Black women, one white woman, two Black men, one white man—some longtime professionals, others newbies—each approach the craft, and interact with their colleagues, from their own individual perspectives based on race, class and theatrical background.

At the center of the maelstrom is Wiletta (the impressive Patrice Johnson Chevann, at various times gleeful, jolly, rageful and more). She’s a prominent actor who confides to a younger castmate, John (Kadeem Ali Harris), that the play — a period piece written by a white man exposing the horrors of lynching)—is crap. She knows that it’s a melodrama full of stereotypical characters. But, she advises him, you’ve got to pretend to laugh about everything. “White folks can’t stand unhappy Negroes,” she says. Sounds kind of Uncle Tomish, he responds doubtfully.

This American Conservatory Theater filmed stage reading, with a nine-member cast (including the director’s assistant and the cheerful Irish doorman), perfectly suits the current zeitgeist, with its recent #WeSeeYouWhiteAmericanTheater manifest from the nation’s Black, Indigenous and people of color theater artists. (Childress’ play never made it to Broadway, but finally will, soon-ish, in a Roundabout Theatre staging.)

During the course of two acts, the performers struggle with the script, with each other, and with the temperamental and controlling director, who counsels them to “Forget your old methods of work! Go along with me!” For old-timers like Wiletta, who has her own way to work, these orders inevitably lead to artistic conflict.

But more than that, they lead to a larger-scale racial conflict that, despite the characters’ sometimes formal-sounding mid-century dialogue, resonates uneasily in our times.

Directed by Awoye Timpo, this reading is part of ACT’s “Out Loud” series. In an introduction, artistic director Pam McKinnon says that the ensemble “explored” the play over the course of several rehearsals.

Still, many of the actors seem uncomfortable with the now-familiar Zoom format, rarely looking up from their scripts; others are more at ease.

Among the standout moments is when Steven Anthony Jones as Sheldon, one of the older cast members, describes a lynching he saw as a child. As always, longtime ACT actor Jones is flawless, pitch-perfect.

And, as the ultimately tough and confrontational Wiletta, Chevann is superb.

“Trouble in Mind’ continues through April 4; tickets are $5 to $50. Visit act-sf.org.

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.

Theater

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