With their ticking clocks, fluid chronologies and surfeit of characters worrying about the onset of old age, the works of Regina Taylor all turn on the passage of time and the possibility of transformation. This writer and actress resists the traditional strictures of commercial product — hence her largely fringe identity to date. But thanks in part to the attention afforded last year’s unwieldy but award-winning “Oo-Bla-Dee,” Taylor is beginning to look like a very viable playwright. Her latest piece is an engrossing and moving combo of populism and metaphysical speculation.
Rather than using familiar narratives, Taylor’s work tends to be based on character exploration. “A Night in Tunisia,” commissioned by and premiering this summer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, is no exception. But thanks to a hip live band and a sampling score that includes snatches of everything from rhythm and blues to “I Will Survive,” there’s a way into this world for the regular audience member. The predominantly female audience in Alabama gave the piece a rapturous response. Of all Taylor’s work, “Night in Tunisia” seems most able to stand as a self-contained work with a vision going beyond the idiosyncrasies of its creator.
The titular Tunisia is not a country but a bar and grill. It’s not to be understood too literally — it’s rather a metaphysical restaurant — but it gives Taylor the chance to bring together a disparate group of African-American females. Essentially a collection of character studies in monologue form, interspersed with music, the piece tries to provide a picture of the issues concerning black women at various pivotal stages in their lives.
The characters are separated by generation. Amanda (Yvette Jones-Smedley) is a high-flying media type dealing with the onset of middle age. M&M (Shona Tucker) is a manicurist and hooker. Gin xyz (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is an alienated youngster. And Ma Dear (Linda Gravatt) is an elderly woman with a taste for calling on Dionne Warwick’s psychic friends. These four monologues are accented with age-appropriate music sung by a blues-singer narrator named Simone (Tina Fabrique). The Man (Carl J. Cofield) plays all of the other very small roles in the show.
By far the strongest section of the show is the Ma Dear segment, thanks in part to a blisteringly authentic performance from Gravatt. After tugging at the audience’s heartstrings as the lonely old lady is sold down the river by fake psychics, she ultimately enters a kind of joyful, dancing celebration of her own soul. As confetti falls from the flies, this old women kicks up her heels in a pulsing dance that carries a huge emotional punch.
The M&M segment is the most problematic, probably because her streetwise survivor character comes closest to well-worn caricature. But there’s also an appealing piece from the Gin xyz character that feels very truthful. The opening Amanda monologue is Taylor’s attempt to explore issues facing career women.
Together, these pieces carry the kind of human interest you’d find on an episode of “Oprah,” but expressed here with the typical richness of Taylor’s dramatic poetry. Almost (but not quite) a musical, “A Night in Tunisia” is a strikingly original and genuinely beguiling show.