By: Patrick Christiano
The New York premiere of Dead and Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson, a GLAAD Media Award winner, opened at Barbara Ann Teer’s NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE, the oldest ongoing black theater in New York on November 5. The engaging 90 minute two character tale by the talented playwright is a provocative and witty look at a controversial issue, the right to die, as well as a frank take on sexual identity and religion. Two women, who have little in common except race, clash head to head over the gift of life in an escalating power struggle that takes several surprising turns before Hutchinson’s explosively nuanced play makes a final fade out.
The ornery Carolyn Whitlock, a wealthy African American women with more than 87 million dollars, played potently by Lizan Mitchell, has been at home in hospice for over two years waiting with growing impatience to die from uterine cancer. When the story begins Veronika, her most recent hospice nurse, played combatively by Nikki E. Walker, is bathing Carolyn in her luxurious bathroom adjacent the sumptuous bedroom.
Just after Veronika asks her to open her "happy flaps" so she can give her a good scrubbing, the doorbell rings. When Veronika leaves Carolyn alone to answer the door, she immediately gets out of the bathtub and attempts to kill herself unsuccessfully. Returning from answering the door, Veronika finds her with a hairdryer in hand about to electrocute herself by getting back into the bath, but the cord is too short and the plug comes out of the wall.
Carolyn now informs Veronika that she wants to die and endeavors to persuade her to help. She wants Veronika to assist in her suicide and put her out this miserable life. She was told over two years ago that she had less than six months to live, but she is still here with 16 hospice nurses in her wake. Veronika, a devout Christian with a salty tongue, sees life as a gift and is horrified at the thought, yet delighted that they are finally having a meaningful conversation.
And so the games begin – a tug of war that will be fought to the death? Veronika proves to be a formidable foil for the powerful and determined Carolyn, who describes herself as "a bitch."
Will the manipulative Carolyn get her way in her privileged world, or will Veronika convince her that suicide is a sin. The stakes are high, and the gifted actors play the action full throttle in Jonathan McCory’s production that mines the material for all the laughs.
This is not a subtle staging and the audience laughed throughout the actor’s intense battle. I overheard that more than one person was coming to see the play for a second time. Indeed, playwright Hutchinson cleverly delves into some meaty issues not only on morality, mortality and the right to die with dignity, but also sexuality. She is a playwright to watch, and I foresee a bright future for this talented young lady.
The character of Veronika is loosely based on her Aunt, a real life nurse with a unique twist. The juxtaposition of these two strong women, who on the surface have nothing in common, turns out to be a detailed investigation into the ties that bind us.
The play contains partial nudity and some strong language not suitable for children, but appropriate to the characters and the play.
The production team includes scenic design by Maruti Evans, lighting design by Alan Edwards, costumes by Karen Perry, sound by Justin Hicks, with special effects by Valerie Gladstone .
Dead and Breathing is now playing at National Black Theatre, at the corner of 125 Street and Fifth Avenue, through November 23. Performances are Monday, Thursday & Friday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2pm & 7:30pm and Sunday at 4pm. NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE is located in the heart of Harlem at 2031-33 National Black Theatre Way (at the corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue — accessible from the 2,3,4,5,6 trains at 125th Street). Tickets are $30, available at 866-811-4111 or www.nationalblacktheatre.org.
Production Photos: Christine Jean Chambers