Radio Silence: a word opera

Zell Miller III's hip-hop opera is fascinating when it isn't flying by so quickly

Arts Review
Photo Courtesy of Jason Amato

Radio Silence

The Vortex, through Aug. 30

Running time: 1 hr, 40 min

Zell Miller III is many things: hip-hop performance artist, sometime slam poet, and, as with this show from Vortex Repertory Company and UpRise! Productions, author and director.

Subtitled a word opera, Radio Silence is like Miller's earlier Evidence of Silence Broken and My Child, My Child, My Alien Child (the latter winner of last year's David Mark Cohen New Play Award from the Austin Critics Table): a compendium of poetry and poetic prose about, among other things, race, rage, love, and parenthood. Here, it's held together by the thematic thread of a personal history of radio.

Radio silence. The phrase is a paradox, implying both sound and its absence, echoing fear and anticipation, a forced lack of communication. And that idea of lack of communication very well may be the reason why, so often during the first act of this show, I could not understand very much of what was going on. Piece after poetic piece flew by, powerful versifying reduced to flying saliva. I'm all for a quick tempo but not at the expense of meaning. Exacerbating the tempo was Ananda Mayi Moss' omnipresent choreography, which didn't assist my understanding. I realize that, with the popularity of acting techniques such as Viewpoints and Suzuki, physical approaches to acting are a prevalent trend. My preference, however, is that an actor's physicality has some immediate – I would go so far as to say obvious – connection to the words spoken. Here, during those too few times in the first act when I could actually follow what was being said, I found myself wondering why the actors were doing what they were doing, which, of course, additionally distracted from the words spoken. While I believe that an audience asking itself, "What does it all mean?" can often be a good thing, it becomes a not-so-good thing when the question is posed because nothing much can be understood. I go to the theatre primarily for entertainment. I don't go there to stretch and strain after meaning. I want to enjoy myself, and I don't if I can't understand what's going on.

None of which is to say I didn't enjoy things about the show. I enjoyed the performers: Miller, with his unending energy and dynamic physicality; Wanda Holland, with her rich, deep voice; and Ebony Stewart, morphing effortlessly from one distinct character to the next. I very much enjoyed the second act, when things (finally) slowed down and I was allowed to savor pieces such as Miller's loving and lovely ode to his mother and his sly, subversive attack on reverse racism. I also very much enjoyed stage manager Lindsey Ervi's execution of the sound design, which effectively underscored, with perfect timing and exquisite rhythm, practically every turn of this spoken-word opera. And while the quick tempo of the first act might have been the point, it was a point lost on me, particularly considering the much easier tempo of the second act, when I was allowed to enjoy Miller's unendingly fascinating writing. Please, please, slow it all down next time. Because I – and my bet is everyone else as well – want to enjoy it all.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Arts Reviews
Review: Different Stages’ Shining City
Review: Different Stages Theatre's Shining City
As with all Conor McPherson plays, the devil is in the details

Bob Abelman, Sept. 30, 2022

Review: Zach Theatre’s <i>The Inheritance, Part 2</i>
Review: Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 2
Second installment of this audacious opus is too much of a good thing

Bob Abelman, Sept. 23, 2022

More by Barry Pineo
Arts Review
Guest by Courtesy
Etiquette takes a pratfall in this comic battle for control between cousins

Nov. 11, 2011

Arts Review
The B. Beaver Animation
The Rude Mechs' re-creation of the Mabou Mines work is necessary but strange

Nov. 4, 2011


Radio Silence: a word opera, Zell Miller III, Vortex Repertory Company, UpRise! Productions, Wanda Holland, Ebony Stewart

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle