I don’t need to explain to anyone why the world of live theater hasn’t exactly been thriving for the past eighteen months, and the prospect of that world returning was an exciting one.
I had no idea what to expect from “Plum Bun,” knowing nothing except the basic premise: a mixed-race black woman passes as white to society and navigates the challenges that arise from the malleability of her race.
While the Rowan University Department of Theater and Dance’s premiere outing for the 2021-2022 season was an intensely frustrating experience, it is partially saved by solid acting and not much else.
In order to break down what went wrong here, I have to start with the biggest culprit. The script is a nightmare. “Plum Bun” is based on a novel by Jessie Redmon Fauset, and the way the playwrights decided to adapt the story was, from what I could gather, to copy sections from the book into the script verbatim.
The actors on stage are reading a book to you. Every line is written like it would be written in a novel. I’m repeating myself because I need to stress exactly what’s going on here: the actors might as well have had the book in their hands and read it word for word.
There are these long, expository monologues, where characters describe physical attributes that we can clearly see, and explain events that have either just happened or will happen — events that aren’t complicated or deep in the slightest and are easily processed in terms of their significance/symbolism.
It feels like one huge monologue and not an interesting one at that. I don’t even feel the need to mention any of the things that happen during the course of the story. It’s about race, but it doesn’t say anything original or insightful about such a ubiquitous subject matter. This is interesting in and of itself, though, as the original novel is marketed as “a novel without a moral.”
Because the vast majority of lines are not actual dialogue but, rather, descriptions of various elements of the plot, the actors are viciously robbed of most of their chances to do any actual acting. When those moments did arrive, they were excellent. Theater students seem to be getting their money’s worth at Rowan, as I can’t think of anyone who didn’t do great here.
Maria Dixon blew me away as Angela Murray. Despite having to commit to memorizing a punishing density of lines due to the nature of the script, she was still able to commit to making Angela an earnest and relatable lead character. Salma Elwy emphasizes the tragedy of Mattie, Angela’s mother, quite well, and Alexander Brown charmed everyone’s socks off as Matthew.
I have to apologize to the cast, though, as it would be dishonest of me not to mention how John Horton stole the show as Junius (Angela’s father) and W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois’ inclusion in the plot was one of the few saving graces of the script, and Horton’s intense, commanding stage presence made the character’s every word drip with urgency and moral clarity.
The direction shined in some ways and failed in others. They made the most out of the minimal, entirely wooden set, though it didn’t do the setting justice. The actors got a workout moving some wooden props that looked just heavy enough to be annoying and executing some surprisingly elaborate set changes at times.
There were plenty of missteps, though. There were some moments that were undercut by unnecessary and distracting background music, characters described as blonde were played by actors who weren’t, and the gunshots in one scene sounded bizarre, robbing that moment of its intensity. Unfortunately, the lackluster direction crept into otherwise impressive acting.
This may seem like a petty nitpick, but I found myself confused at the kissing in the play. Characters kissing doesn’t even seem like something anyone would even think about, but when I see an actor give a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peck on the lips of another actor with their mouth closed I have to ask: Are we in middle school? There’s a moment of the intense passion between Angela and her boyfriend, Roger, where they just sit on the bed and almost rub noses for a minute or two. It looked so awkward.
There’s another spot towards the end where two characters share this big, romantic moment. They embrace each other in an explosion of love and rub their cheeks together for a second, making it look like they’re kissing. It just looks weird.
The worst moment was the entirely implied sex scene, where the actors pull a blanket over themselves with all of their clothes on and just squirm around under there for a minute. It was funny in a bad way and took me out of the scene entirely. Are we not comfortable with any form of intimacy on stage? If so, that’s understandable. Good acting doesn’t require pushing boundaries, but at that point, why even include these moments at all?
I asked that same question during some comedic bits, the most egregious of which being when an actor was very clearly meant to fall out of his chair after a moment of shock, but instead, they just flail around for a second, almost falling out of the chair. It still got a laugh from the audience, but, I mean, are you afraid of falling out of the chair? Again, if so, why even include the gag?
All of these complaints could have been overlooked if they weren’t drawn out over the course of three hours. Yes, “Plum Bun” is three hours long, which is at least an hour more than it really needed to be to tell the story effectively — and it is not a fun three hours. You spend most of it staring at a boring set, watching scenes between one or two characters deliver exposition/dialogue hybrid lines that say nothing, really. The script is a book, but a boring, poorly-written one.
The real insult was Act V, which wasn’t in the program. There is literally an extra act in this play, and almost all of it is unnecessary. I laughed to myself as I frantically checked my program to see if I had missed something, and looked up to see people in the rows ahead of me doing the same.
The last few scenes in this final act shift the plot into something resembling a Greek tragedy, and, ironically, was the only chunk of the story that felt memorable, with an excellent twist at the end where the characters who should be together, end up together.
I don’t regret seeing the show and don’t lament its quality, for the simple reason that the bar has now been set. I am delighted that live theater is back, and can not wait to see what else the department pulls off this year. It can only get better from here.
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