'Babes in Ho-lland' Shotgun Players stages Deneen Reynolds-Knott's love story

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 9, 2024
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Tierra Allen, Sundiata Ayinde and Ciera Eis in 'Babes in Ho-lland' (photo: Robbie Sweeny)
Tierra Allen, Sundiata Ayinde and Ciera Eis in 'Babes in Ho-lland' (photo: Robbie Sweeny)

Until recently, it hadn't occurred to me that it could be fraught to describe something as "gentle." But after reading playwright Deneen Reynolds-Knott's lovely coming-of-age romance "Babes in Ho-lland," which is about to have its premiere production at Berkeley's Shotgun Players, I wondered otherwise.

The script, a delicately wrought portrait of two college students in the early days of a relationship, is indeed gentle; also tender, sweet, and optimistic.

Amidst a Bay Area theater scene that has in recent years leaned toward high-conflict, identity politics-driven drama, would praising a play for its overarching emotional warmth be a perverse sort of box office poison?

Leigh Rondon-Davis, the production's director, was not surprised when I raised this question in a recent interview for the Bay Area Reporter.

"I knoooow," said Rondon-Davis with a chuckle. "That word 'gentle' has come up more than a few times as we've developed the show. At Shotgun, we really had to question ourselves: 'Is there enough going on in this story?'"

In answering that question with a 'Yes,' the director, playwright and the rest of the creative team are keenly aware of the cultural context in which this production arrives.

"So many of the plays we've been seeing about Blackness and queerness lately have also been about death and struggle and trauma," noted Rondon-Davis.

"It feels good to invite audiences to share a story about falling in love, a show that you can walk out of feeling good and smiling. We're offering folks a treat."

As it happens, Ciara and Taryn, the play's central couple, are Black and queer; the third on stage character, Kat, is white. But Reynolds-Knott weaves themes of privilege and class into the script alongside the budding romance with a gossamer touch.

There's not a moment of didacticism in the dialogue. And the characters' occasional misunderstandings about each other don't fall along stereotypical lines.

playwright Deneen Reynolds-Knott  

Sociocultural frictions
Immediately prior to writing "Babes in Ho-lland" (Holland is the name of a University of Pittsburgh dormitory), Reynolds-Knott had been working on a play rife with sociocultural frictions.

But when she found herself writing in solitude during the pandemic, saying, "I had to think about who I wanted to invite into the room with me, what kind of characters I wanted to spend time with. So, I definitely led with love. That was the energy I wanted to feel.

"The play is also a sort of love letter to a family member of mine who was exploring their sexuality and gender back in the 1990s when I was in college. There are often relationships that happen in college that aren't even known about by anyone other than the people having them. It's not always this public-facing situation and it's not always about struggling with the idea of coming out.

"For a lot of Black folks in my life who now identify as queer," she continued, "they just felt drawn to someone; they didn't fall into this whole trope of struggle. And it wasn't until later that they had a very conscious conversation with friends or family members about the fact that they were in a same-sex relationship. The relationship itself can be a safe, comfortable space."

In fact, to the extremely minor extent Ciara has a secret shame in the play, it's not about her sexuality, but about the fact that she's a Black woman who likes to rock out to Hole as well as grooving to Xscape and TLC.

"I was listening to Erykah Badu and to Radiohead back then," said Reynolds-Knott. "I think a lot of us were hopping around and enjoying different things, we just didn't necessarily tell each other about it.

"Sometimes I think people feel, oh I can't do this, I can't listen to this, or I'll be considered a weirdo, so they keep it to themselves. But we're all weirdos."

My fellow weirdos: I gently encourage you to enjoy this tonic of a play.

'Babes in Ho-lland,' Jan. 13-Feb. 4. $8-$40. Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

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