Lonely Words
University Theatre, NCCU Campus
Through July 29

In Durham playwright Howard Craft’s latest production, the subject of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community serves as a springboard for a discourse about truth, lies and, ultimately, the power of words.

Taking its title from a Billy Joel song about the loneliness of supreme honesty, Lonely Words tells the story of Denise Atkinson (Tonya Williamson) and her husband, Rutherford B. Brown (Joel McCauley), and their struggle to find truth in their marriage. During a three-year split while Brown served a prison sentence, both husband and wife strayed from one another sexually and emotionally. When the two come back together, their past slowly turns into the present as sexual histories are confirmed through an HIV/AIDS diagnosis.

It is in the subsequent emotional aftermath of the diagnosis where playwright Craft fully attacks the lies, misconceptions and misinformation about HIV/AIDS through a series of therapy sessions. Here, we’re given bite-size bits of information about the virus in an educational format that is somewhat tedious but ultimately enlivened by a stellar performance by Williamson, who fills each word with equal parts rage and sorrow. But while HIV/AIDS discourse and counseling sessions take center stage, the play also tackles other problems plaguing the African-American community, getting its hands dirty in drug-related violence and misogynistic viewpoints.

Here, words are of the utmost importance. We don’t see young stud Kevin Thomas (Amani Atkinson) acting as a player, we only hear him recount his sexual exploits to his aged boss, Old School (Thomasi McDonald). Kevin refers to his female lovers as “bitches” and “hos” without a flinch, professes his love for a stripper and his desire to be a high-profile drug dealer. But as the play unfurls, this false image is crushed when the neighborhood dope slinger gets shot and Kevin is forced to deal with the brutal truth and his own misconceptions about women. This is the crux of Craft’s production, to force his characters to face their own self-deceptions and learn to be real to themselves and to others.

In Craft’s world, honesty really is the best policy, and the audience is treated to a production that’s just that: emotionally authentic and steeped in humanity. Kathy Justice

Theatre in the Park, Raleigh
Through Aug. 5

Theatre in the Park’s Briarpatch is advertised as a “bodacious musical,” and with its pageantry of adults in critter costumes and make-up exhibiting an almost uncanny amount of enthusiasm, it is exactly that. Watching it, one almost expects those ’80s teen icons of all that is radical, Bill and Ted, to enter the scene and embark on another “excellent adventure.”

This TIP original production is based on Joel Chandler Harris’ stories of Br’er Fox (Ira David Wood), Br’er Bear (J.K. Ferrell), Br’er Rabbit (David Henderson) and the whole briar gang. It contains catchy dance numbers and songs, several of which feature the entire cast in their colorful, country costumes moving in synchronization. Wood plays an excellent Br’er Fox: His fox mannerisms and hilarious fox voice are the highlight of the show. Young children will undoubtedly appreciate the show for its anthropomorphism and commitment to detail (including Br’er Turtle’s giant shelled back), as well as its attempts at Abbott and Costello antics. Adults, meanwhile, may also find the show stimulating upon noticing the wit slipped into the dialogue, such as the accusation of the simple-minded Br’er Turtle (Mike Raab), “Youse not an optimist, youse a Democrat like the rest of us!” (Part of the enjoyment for adults may also come from the thought of Briarpatch as the subject of the next Christopher Guest movie.)

As an annual production, the show has both wisdom of experience under its belt and the slightly stale aura of that which has been done many times before. While most of the scenes, with the exception of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear’s watered-down Of Mice and Men relationship, lack any striking talent, there are enough compensationsfrom the enjoyment of the children watching to the uncompromising energy of the actors involvedto ensure that you’ll be amused. Megan Stein

10 by 10 in the Triangle
The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
Closed July 22

The second-to-last performance of The ArtsCenter’s sixth annual 10 By 10 in the Triangle was sold out, with ushers adding extra chairs to many of the rows. This was surely due to the success of the past festivals, as well as the appeal the collection of 10-minute plays has for all audience members: No matter who you are, there’s bound to be at least a couple of plays you’ll enjoy (and even if you don’t … it’s only 10 minutes). With more than 400 script submissions to choose from, this festival was, according to ArtsCenter Artistic Director Lynden Harris, “The year of breaking things, [breaking] the walls that divide,” with topics ranging from filial duties to the banality of office jobs.

All 10 selected plays exuded wit and zest, even though a few of the plays’ achievements did not continue beyond their initial kernel of an idea, including Chris Shaw Swanson’s tribute to her female pals, Friendship 101, and Isabella Russell-Ides’ philosophical make-over of two homeless people, Cosmo and Gigi.

Christopher Lockheardt’s Helluva Poker Face, a hilarious look at four poker-playing friends who know each other too well, and Rich Orloff’s Oh Happy Day, about two gay men embittered by their inability to be legally wed, both stood out because of their visceral sense of play. The latter effort also possessed the astute re-naming of Republicans and Democrats as “Huns and those that act like Huns because they’re afraid of losing the Hun vote.”

Besides the succinctness of the plays, 10 By 10 is exciting because of the recycling of actors, which creates a thematic feel for the festival and allows the audience a chance to see the interesting ways an actor will portray different characters. Greg Hohn was a good example of this, playing first a catatonic poker genius in Helluva Poker Face and then a library archivist wanting to re-ignite his life in Mark Levine’s Scripted. Estes Tarver was similarly dynamic in his contrary roles as an overbearing, aggressive poker fanatic (Helluva Poker Face) and a beaten-down gay politician (Oh Happy Day).

Although this year’s festival has ended, the success of this and past productions guarantees that our anticipation of the seventh festival is justified. Megan Stein