Review: Common Ground Theatre’s play readings try to destigmatize therapy in the Black community
Production is the theater’s latest ‘Uplifting Black Voices’ event, with this one focused on mental health during the pandemic
Everyone has faced challenges during the pandemic, but two play readings presented last weekend by Common Ground Theatre showed how cultural traditions have made it especially hard for many in the Black community to cope.
Playwright A.D. Brown, whose semi-autobiographical play “Pruning Ivy” was presented during the Zoom event on Jan. 30, said members of the Black community often look down on therapy and counseling because they see it as a sign of weakness.
“We’re prideful people,” Brown said. “We don’t want our family’s business in the street. We stuff our stuff. We push it down and just move forward without dealing with certain things.”
The event was the second in Common Ground’s “Uplifting Black Voices” series, which presents new plays by Black American playwrights. Both scripts were directed by company executive artistic director Yolanda Franklin, who said in post-show comments that this event was meant to encourage audience members to seek help if they need it.
The show began with “This Is a Low,” a short play by 22-year-old playwright Cris Eli Blak, whose work was also featured in the inaugural “Uplifting” performance in December. Blak’s two-character play was inspired by his own experience in 2019, where he was committed to a care center on a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
In the play, a young man named Jude denies, defies and then gradually warms up to Mister, a kind but no-nonsense mental health counselor in the locked mental health unit. Jude has been struggling with suicidal thoughts but repeatedly says he doesn’t belong in a clinic. “This Is a Low” at times feels more like a sketch than a complete play, but it shows Blak’s promise in creating authentic situations and characters. Ahmed Dents played Mister, and Dwaine Collier played Jude.
In post-show comments, Blak said he hopes his play inspires young Black people like himself to find strength in facing their problems.
“The strongest people are those who can stand up and admit ‘this is what’s going with me’ and stand in your truth and speak your truth,” Blak said. “I am now able to admit to it and say not every day is a good day.”
“Pruning Ivy” was also inspired by Brown’s life, during a time she was struggling with grief in grad school. Carla BaNu DeJesus gave a stunning performance as Ivy, a high-achieving Ph.D. candidate who is secretly considering suicide as she battles anxiety, depression, heartbreak and loneliness following her mother’s death.
Ivy is pulled back from the brink by her three devoted aunts, Lily, Rose and Violet, who can tell she’s struggling but have no idea how severely. The language of the play is raw and honest and the four characters are well-drawn and diverse, with Ivy’s wacky aunt Rose providing much-needed comic relief. Cassandra Crawford, Denise Baitey and Diane Carroll co-starred as the aunts.
Several more “Uplifting Black Voices” readings are planned in the coming months. For details, visit commongroundtheatre.com.
—- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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