The Houston theater scene has just begun, but it's already been blessed by a surfeit of riches, whose savory works are all still running to be enjoyed and treasured. Main Street's Trouble in Mind resurrects Alice Childress's play about race that speaks to us with more force and poignancy than it did when written in the '50s. Catastrophic's exquisite revival of Samuel Beckett's ironic Happy Days peels off your skin by the force of Tamarie Cooper's exquisitely detailed performance of Winnie, the unnaturally happy woman buried up to her chest in a mound of earth.
If you want a juggernaut of a farce, there's Alley's Lend Me a Soprano, which will barrel right over you while you die laughing. And now here's the new boy in town, On the Verge Theatre, with its world premiere production of Crystal Rae's coruscating Tied with a tour de force performance by Jason E. Carmichael that leaves one breathless with awe (in appreciation of both actor and author).
In this one-act monologue, Carmichael portrays Daniel, the father of one of the four young girls killed in the September 16, 1963, KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The horrendous crime galvanized the Civil Rights movement and inspired the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Due to the appalling actions of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who withheld evidence from state prosecutors and prematurely closed the case against the four defendants, it would be 14 years before the first perpetrator was brought to justice. Thirty-seven years after the attack, when the cold case was finally reopened, two others were found guilty of murder in the girls’ deaths; one of the suspects had died in 1994.
It's not the bombing that Rae focuses on, but its devastating personal aftermath as Daniel recalls his life before and after. He suffers from shell shock, certainly a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In an almost biblical manner, he tells us of his youth, his marriage, his children, his faith, and his many ties – to his ancestral home Africa, to his sense of community, to his abiding humanity, his constant humiliation and isolation from the whites.
His conflicting emotions swirl throughout, surge up in great arcs of emotion and subside in gentle reminiscences. He's all over the place, and Carmichael leads us with sure steady hand, his voice changing with every character, from a tempting twangy Satan to a consoling yet chasm-voiced judgmental God, from his wife speaking in tongues to his adored chirpy little girl. We listen to his stories like children at the feet of a master storyteller.
Carmichael goes through Hell but we're there with him, urging him onward, praying he'll find his way through the wilderness. He will be tempted – that iconic blue tie that may lead to vengeance – but his faith and family and overwhelming goodness prevail and save him. When he shouts a jubilant Hallelujah, which ties back to a former story, it's not only the perfect ending but the cry of a life redeemed.
Everything ties back to something. Rae is brilliant here. A multi-talented artist (she received our 2019 Houston Theater Award for Best Actress in Dirt Dog's White Man on the Bus), Rae's writing is effortless, fragrant with meaning, and suffused with drama. She knows how to write for actors. Her dialogue is filled with surprising revelations, pinpricks of patois, and the most poetic description.
Daniel describes how black people “hold anger” and tells a story about his mother's walk. She held her anger in her hips, he says. When she was angry she was tight, “like newsprint,” but when she was happy, “she was cursive, curvy,” like her Sunday walk to church, and her husband loved to walk behind her as he beheld and reveled in her sway.
Memories of Africa imbue Daniel, haunt him, sing to him in voices he doesn't understand, yet. His wife can “walk inside your soul” and discern your lies, like an ancient shaman. Water is the way back, he relates, in reference to the Middle Passage. His baby daughter's “heart name” is Ladybug Atlantic, and his eldest is called Sailor.
But where does the water lead? he questions. He's here, he insists, Birmingham is home, isn't it? And he's not leaving, no matter how much his heart has unraveled. He will be stitched up. If he must wait on his porch with his gun on his knees for the dogs to come and the men who follow them, then he will sit and wait. Like his daddy did. “You take it,” he says, “or you wait for it to be given, or you leave it behind.”
Directed with razor-sharp precision by Bruce Lumpkin, co-founder with Ron Jones of On the Verge, the pace never falters. While Rae's play curlicues through the years, the accumulative weight steadily builds. Santiago Sepeda's impressionistic porch set reinvents itself as Carmichael delves into every part of it: wash bucket, rocking chair, child's chair with rag doll, Coke cooler, a faded folded-up newspaper, a bench as bathtub, all dappled in sunlight from lighting designer Nicholas Ochoa or suddenly bathed in blood red terror or cold frightening moonlight.
It's still early in the season, but who will write a better world premiere or present it with such panache and heart? Whatever happens, Rae, Carmichael, and On the Verge are definitive winners.
Tied continues through October 9 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Black Box at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-673-9565 or visit onthevergetheatre.org. $35.