Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage celebrates the opening of the intimate, 200-seat Kogod Cradle Theatre with a new, emotionally charged stage production. Every Tongue Confess, written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Kenny Leon, centers around a string of church burnings in the South and the emotional uproar that follows.
The play takes place in Boligee, Ala., in the summer of 1996 and follows one church whose members are deeply affected by the rash of hate crimes encroaching on their town. Some members are afraid to attend, but others – like Mother’s Sister (Phylicia Rashad), Missionary (Crystal Fox), Brother (E. Roger Mitchell) and Elder (Eugene Lee) – rely on their unwavering faith.
The opening scene takes place in Mother Sister’s church with a riveting musical performance from the Missionary, Brother and Elder. Amid the singing, clapping, shouting and metaphorical references to the sweltering Alabama heat, Elder smells something burning?the church. With no escape, Elder decides he’d rather not die with secrets and begins to divulge memories that involve murder and a covert interracial relationship.
Here begins one of many tightly interwoven subplots. Elder introduces Benny Pride (Autumn Hurlbert), a White teenage girl who witnesses the murder of her mother, Bernadette (Leslie Kritzer). Bernadette met her demise due to an accident at the hands of her longtime lover, Bobby (also played by Mitchell), who is Black.
The tragedy leaves Benny with a social worker, Tender Meeks (also played by Fox), who carelessly leaves the shaken girl with Stroker Pride (Jim Ireland), the father she never knew. Stroker is a lonely, hateful man whose anger runs his daughter off and onto Mother Sister’s porch. Mother Sister, the town’s spiritual healer, is a widow who looks after those who seek her spiritual guidance from Benny, the town drunk; path-digging Jeremiah (also played by Eugene Lee) and Blacksmith (Jonathan Peck), a drifter with a past of his own. She is also raising her 16 year-old son, Shadrack (Jason Dirden) who has dreams bigger than their small town.
The cast’s chemistry radiated from the stage, with Rashad and Peck’s characters presenting some of the most powerful moments on stage. Autumn Hurlbert’s vocal performance was surprising and refreshing, while Ireland convincingly portrayed the dour Stroker Pride.
The costumes, makeup, stage lighting, props and subdued special effects contributed to a more believable and identifiable setting in the new cradle-shaped theater. Every Tongue Confess is sure to make audiences laugh, cry and praise God.
“Every Tongue Confess” runs through Jan. 11 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., D.C. For ticket prices and show times, visit arenastage.org or contact 202-554-9066.