Just as the summer is winding down, along come two plays -- strange fever dreams that jolt our sense of the good and the bad.
These world premieres -- Kirsten Greenidge’s Zenith, under the auspices of the SF Playhouse’s Sandbox series, and noted Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s Rashomon, produced by the always-resourceful Ubuntu Theater Project -- are welcome reminders that dread is a special emotion that should never be underestimated, even in the waning days of our brightest season.
Zenith: A no-escape tragedy
Zenith is a no-escape tragedy whose brutality is a function of increasing knowledge. The play begins with Angela (a remarkable Atim Udoffia), a woman who is overcome with terror when she gets a glimpse of one of those majestic baby chairs that the Whole Foods class loves. You know right away that things are going to end badly and that knowledge shades every moment that follows.
Angela turns out to be Aunt Angela, and she’s trying to convince her uptight and wealthier sister-in-law, Hazel, that what Hazel’s three girls need is a camping trip with their fun-loving, freedom-inspiring aunt. The hidden jabs of privilege and class slip through what should be a light-hearted conversation between two African-American women. After all, they've both managed to secure some part of what we might still call the American dream.
When Hazel panics at Angela giving her daughters knives, Angela’s response is an odd mix of concern, moral certainty, and aggression: “You cannot baby them you can not," the character says. "My dad had us using those things when we were four. I told the girls we’ll bust them out first thing, so they’re getting them.” There it is, the first hint of pride that will destroy our hero, a woman who has lived a life of unparalleled goodness, a saint of sacrifice and shepherd of hope.
Greenidge understands that a life of good deeds is just as likely to end in total havoc as it will in graceful thanks and warm testimonials. At times her vision of Angela’s fall feels over-determined in the play’s headlong rush to tragedy, but at its best moments Zenith bristles with a disarming naturalism.