Radio Silence: a word opera
Zell Miller III's hip-hop opera is fascinating when it isn't flying by so quickly
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Aug. 29, 2008
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.