Review: Austin Playhouse's Nightbird

A timely treatise on the space between Black America's past, present, and future

Taji Senior as Chelle and Hollis L. Edwards III as Willard in Austin Playhouse’s Nightbird (photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

Prominently displayed on the landscaped southern entrance acreage of the Texas Capitol stands an imposing gray granite monument honoring the soldiers of the Confederacy, with a bronze statue of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis at the top. That's just one of approximately 2,000 Confederate monuments still on public display nationwide. But bolstered by the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, statues of Civil War white supremacists are being removed in protest against systemic racism. With their pedestals now vacant, what should fill these empty spaces?

That question looms large in R. Eric Thomas' Nightbird, getting its world premiere production at Austin Playhouse under director Marcus McQuirter. The play focuses on a historically Black, formerly impoverished, and increasingly gentrified Baltimore neighborhood where a 100-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback has been recently removed.

It's there that Chelle (Taji Senior) – a young, Black, and gay interactive sculptural installation artist – has purchased her childhood home, across from the park that housed the statue. She has been commissioned to create a new monument to be placed on the remnant 10-foot-long, 4-foot-wide, 6-foot-high plinth but is struggling to find her voice. Visions of an Obama statue made up of found household materials, a projected image of a mud-flecked Harriet Tubman holding a gun, and the representation of a defiant Black everywoman holding Lee's decapitated head don't seem to do the trick.

Living with Chelle is her younger brother Willard (Hollis L. Edwards III), also gay and also struggling to find his voice. His "We Belong to Each Other" podcasts, membership in a Resistance Choir, and coordination of a Juneteenth festival in the park do not give him much satisfaction or generate much respect from Chelle. Neither is his choice of Thalia (Indiia Wilmont) as the interior designer to renovate the house, whose unabashed truth-telling and "National Museum of African American History and Culture" aesthetic are acquired tastes.

All three, it seems, are attempting to reconcile the past – their family's, the house, the neighborhood, the Black experience in America – with the present in the hope of setting a path for the future, but they are lost in the space between. And so, much of the play consists of lengthy passages of discovery: Chelle's passionate, sleep-deprived reflections on all things art and otherwise, Willard's bursts of self-actualization, and the self-defensive tirades between the two as they question each other's Blackness, political posture, and life choices. Thalia frequently steps in to offer some "I'm not saying. I'm just saying" comic relief and perspective.

It does not take long to realize that this play is a wordy, distended affair with more telling than showing or doing. Fortunately, the words are brilliant and the playwright has created crazy smart, spirited, and articulate characters to deliver them, which Senior, Edwards, and Wilmont have turned into real and engaging people. Thalia likens the quick, intelligent, and too-clever interactions between the siblings to an episode of The West Wing. She is not wrong.

The play is intriguing and alluring until it is not, which hits home around half-time. So dense is the script and so rapid is its presentation that there is no time to process all the insight and cultural references, reflect on the astute arguments being made, or react to the humor, of which there is plenty. At the end of the opening night of Nightbird, during bows, the actors seemed exhausted. The audience even more so. In short, Nightbird is just shy of overwhelming.

Austin Playhouse's Nightbird
405 W. 22nd,, 512/476-0084
Through March 26
Running time: Approx. 2 hrs., 15 mins.

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Austin Playhpuse, Nightbird, R. Eric Thomas, Marcus McQuirter, Taji Senior, Hollis L. Edwards III, Indiia Wilmont

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