Originally published at www.theatrius.com
“In the Evening by the Moonlight”—by Traci Tolmaire with Margo Hall—honors Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone. We see them in 1963, when they were young artists fighting racism.
We are introduced to three of the most influential 20th Century artists in a crowded New York apartment. Very ill, Hansberry (intense playwright Tolmaire) holds court for folk/jazz singer/pianist Nina Simone (intriguing Ryan Nicole Austin), and forthright writer James Baldwin (engaging Rotimi Agbabiaka).
All three chat it up, sing, smoke too many herbal cigarettes, and drink scotch in the evening by the moonlight—recalling their ancestors who were slaves in the fields.
Designer Carlos Aceves’ imaginative Waverly Place apartment boasts a brick wall made of books. Hansberry’s walls are covered with written and typed pages, as she feverishly works on her latest manuscript. Pages fall from the sky like floating loose thoughts.
Hansberry, through Tolmaire, expresses an urgency in addressing social change, eager to challenge social norms and even her comrades. Yet the power of the issues dwindles as they spill out and dissolve. Tolmaire’s embodiment of the tragic young playwright spotlights Hansberry’s determination.
As Nina Simone, Austin’s resonant voice sings the folksong “In the Evening by The Moonlight” with passion and grace. Simone announces: “I want fame …. people to love my singing voice.” She wears a lovely formal gown throughout the show.
Remi Agbabiaka stands out as the vibrant James Baldwin. Agbabiaka’s versatility, the fluidness of his movements, and his facial expressions channel Baldwin. Baldwin and Hansberry combine in their fight for civil rights and the imperative need for change. “Racism is a moral issue,” Baldwin states, as if reading from one of his books. “Equal opportunity is not equity.”
In the conversational middle section, pithy arguments and ideas flourish and die out. They argue over civil rights gone wrong and the Kennedys’ rejection of their cause. They discuss voting rights and the rabid FBI, poster-boys for fear and inequality.
“Fear is the power this nation is run on,” Baldwin shouts. When he returns from buying cigarettes, Baldwin is in a panic that the FBI followed him. We sense the terror hovering over Black Americans.
Director Margot Hall blends these three distinct characters into a notable comradery. The framework is tight, and the three Black artists explore their own plays, essays, stories, and songs.
The talkative threesome shares the Black experience in White America. “In the Evening by The Moonlight” demonstrates the incredibly slow changes of racism in America. In some states we have circled back to the beginning when their forefathers sang that song.
Tolmaire and Hall give us a lot to ponder, as we gaze at “essential” workers who are still underpaid and poorly treated today. Is fear still the power that runs this nation? See “Moonlight” so the conversations can continue.
“In the Evening by the Moonlight” by Traci Tolmaire, co-conceived & directed by Margo Hall, at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, at Fort Mason, San Francisco. Info: LHT.org – to July 2, 2023.
Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Ryan Nicole Austin, and Traci Tolmaire.
Photo: Alejandro Ramos