D.C.’s Arena Stage, newly renovated and rededicated to presenting American works, unveils its 200-seat Kogod Cradle theater with an intriguing peek into one of the country’s darkest chapters, the mysterious burnings of African-American churches in Alabama during 1996. Poet-playwright Marcus Gardley was commissioned to write the work, called “Every Tongue Confess,” and it was staged by Kenny Leon. A first-rate cast is headed by Phylicia Rashad.
Gardley’s script tells of the impact of the grisly events on a community of rural Alabamians within a style that blends poetry, folklore, drama and even humor. “This is a pit stop on the road to hell,” explains a jovial trio of parishioners from the pews of their church.
Under Leon’s direction, the story weaves elements of reality and make-believe in a manner that toys with the audience until a jarring climax attempts to bring home the message. Yet the suspended belief dictated by the plot tends to rob the play of the full impact presumably sought by the playwright. Set designer Tom Lynch provides the bare elements to suggest the varying locales depicted.
Rashad displays keen versatility in a role as a minister, single parent and respected faith healer who anchors the story with her strength and compassion. Crystal Fox, Eugene Lee and E. Roger Mitchell, all of whom play multiple roles that propel the story, also turn in enjoyable performances. Jim Ireland’s angry villager adds vital dimension to the tale, as does Jonathan Peck’s wandering blacksmith, who gives voice to Gardley’s uplifting poetry. Jason Dirden’s role as the boisterous son includes an enjoyable scene in which his character is cleverly browbeaten by Rashad after proposing to fly the nest.
Arena’s Cradle is an intimate and inviting space created at the request of a.d. Molly Smith to nurture new and developing works, a primary mission for the 60-year-old troupe. It is an oval-shaped theater with wooden basket-weaved walls and a simple stage. It is a distinctive and comfortable space that will compliment Arena’s four-sided Fichandler and its traditional Kreeger Theater.