Review: Single Black Female

Lisa B. Thompson's play preaches from a Nineties perch

Despite the constant reminders of a ticking clock, Lisa B. Thompson’s Single Black Female is stuck in the Nineties. Currently running at Ground Floor Theatre under the direction of Matrex Kilgore, this play hits some graceful notes despite an overall dissonance for the world we reside in today.

Valoneecia Tolbert (l) as SBF2 and Michelle Alexander as SBF1 in Single Black Female at Ground Floor Theatre (Photo by Dave Hawks)

SBF1 (Michelle Alexander) and SBF2 (Valoneecia Tolbert) take the stage in a hard presentational manner, speaking directly to the audience. We’ve become students to a lecture where the professors are desperate for laughs despite the severity of the content. What distinguishes these women is style, namely in dress and desire. SBF1 is more artsy, a self-described “boho” Ph.D., and never wants to marry. SBF2 is a lawyer decked out in a white power blazer and maroon pants, ready to be a wife with a mortgage. These women spin stories of being single, Black, and female, of course, but another element of the narrative relates to class. Being in their mid-30s, they’re not too concerned about money, boasting solid jobs after attaining higher education. (As a millennial, I’m skeptical.)

Soon we’re on a tour of SBF2’s apartment, which boasts a wannabe Pottery Barn aesthetic of sleek mahogany furniture, an extra-long grey monochrome couch, and lovingly placed wooden sculpture. (Gary Thornsberry designed the set.) Kilgore’s direction shines when our SBFs turn their attention to each other and memories rather than to us with explanations. Such moments are perfectly backed by peek-a-boo brick on the apartment wall, between large panels of windows (which double as screens for projections). This set-up reinforces the presentational style, giving us little opportunity to disengage, for better or worse.

Video projections are used amply here, generally as montage-esque transitions (The video design is by Lowell Bartholomee). First we are offered a walk through Black womanhood in the 1970s and 1980s, a described bleak “state before Oprah.” We find joy in the existence of Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but it’s snatched away in the 1990s with the introduction of Jerry Springer, of which the image of Black womanhood “hasn’t recovered.” Projections are at first a compelling choice to aid the lecture, but as we move from topic to topic they serve less purpose and are more filler.

It’s clear that playwright Thompson is endeavoring to trouble such lasting and harmful tropes by uplifting the lives of modern women. She calls in the power of aunties and elders, proving every generation has their own battles of the mind and morals. Yet our supposed modern and with-it characters feel detached from us here in 2020. Although marriage and love are still heralded as major points of security and success, I wonder why there is so much rigidity in the portrayal of these elements in Single Black Female.

One-liners become quite jarring as our SBFs stomp on the possibility of poly relationships, ascribe queerness to a phase, and uplift the universality (“Man, woman, parakeet – we’re all just trying to find love.”). This outdatedness lingers throughout the production as we journey along for adventures in online dating (sans cellphones) and dreams of a $30k wedding. With a show so dependent on stand-up-esque jokes, the 15-year-old script shows its age. Still, Alexander and Tolbert are a joy to witness, fully committed with silly antics and impeccable timing.

Moments of greatest poignancy come when our SBFs break from this preachy presentation and breathe on their own, unencumbered by the weight to tell, tell, tell. One comes by way of slam poetry magic atop a coffee table. This is aided by a welcome shift in lights, gifting us with a break from quasi-fluorescents to a soft pink-purple. Such taking of space and asserting of power is a great metaphor pointing to the necessity of reclaiming what it means to be a single Black woman.

And yet, despite ample opportunity for self-reflection, these women are slow to realize the power and love already within themselves. Single Black Female argues for the past, a time of the supposed rigid and binary, but there is so much more to be discovered in what our characters unfortunately deem “alternative lifestyles.”

Single Black Female runs through Feb. 29, Thu.-Sat., 8pm, at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale, Ste. 122. For more information, visit the Ground Floor Theatre website.

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Ground Floor Theatre, Lisa B. Thompson, Matrex Kilgore, Valoneecia Tolbert, Michelle Alexander, Gary Thornsberry, Lowell Bartholomee

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