Robin Hood: An Elegy
Rough edges aside, Generic Ensemble Company's new work makes an urgent statement that #blacklivesmatter
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Aug. 14, 2015
This is a play that is many things. It's historical and modern, it's social commentary and art, it's performance and education.
Robin Hood: An Elegy, a new play by Krysta Gonzales, begins as a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The initial scene takes place at a masquerade, as Robin (Taji Senior-Gipson) falls in love with Marian (Chelsea Manasseri). The Renaissance-era music gives way to contemporary strains, and soon Robin encounters a trio of fairies who whisk him back and forth between his medieval and/or Renaissance origins (the play isn't clear exactly when or where he exists) and modern times in the United States. The opening speech mentions that Robin lives in Senegal, which is not explained fully but may explain the racial identities of Robin and his fellows.
Providing a more definite summary is difficult because the rules that govern the world or worlds of this play are never made clear. The key movement in the story is that Robin finds himself shuttled back and forth between eras. In deeper trouble each time he switches centuries, Robin arrives at a place of hopelessness from witnessing brutal, unpunished crimes against black people who live far in his own future. As Robin's eyes are opened, so hopefully is the audience's understanding of terrible things that have been done to a people, including recent violence against black people at the hands of law enforcement.
Generic Ensemble Company has created this work at a critical yet challenging time, as the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police are in the headlines and many stories about them are being told for the first time. To be relevant, theatre artists should participate in this conversation, and the artists involved in Robin Hood do so. However, the impact of their efforts is blunted somewhat by the unevenness of experience and training among the cast members. It comes down to technique: projection, articulation, memorization of cues, physicality, coordination, and listening. They draw focus from one another at inappropriate times. On top of that, the direction of kt shorb leaves awkward, empty moments, with blank space as an object is handed back and forth.
Most of the actors are, or appear to identify as, female, and yet the characters they play are both women and men. The performer playing Robin, for instance, identifies in her program bio as female but plays a role with male pronouns. In another play, such gender-neutral casting might not be problematic, but Robin Hood: An Elegy seeks to address racism and violence against black people in this country, which black men and black women have experienced in overlapping but not identical ways. Both have experienced violence at the hands of law enforcement, but – and this is perhaps as much as a white female theatre critic can explain this – black men have borne the brunt of this violence throughout history, living under the ugly stereotype that they are to be feared as sexual aggressors. Women have suffered in other ways. In a work such as Toni Morrison's Beloved, gender is an essential factor in the lives of its African-American characters. The blurred presentation of gender here interferes with the message that Robin Hood wants to make.
That said, GenEnCo and the Vortex deserve applause for bringing this story to the stage. Now is the time to offer a shared space for audiences and artists to wrestle with these problems, as rough and unrealized as the presentation may be.
Robin Hood: An ElegyThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd.
Through Aug. 22
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.