'In the Evening by the Moonlight' — Lorraine Hansberry Theatre brings its namesake to life

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
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Ryan Nicole Austin as Nina Simone, Rotimi Agbabiaka as James Baldwin and Traci Tolmaire as Lorraine Hansberry in Tolmaire's 'In the Evening by the Moonlight' (photo: Alejandro Ramos)
Ryan Nicole Austin as Nina Simone, Rotimi Agbabiaka as James Baldwin and Traci Tolmaire as Lorraine Hansberry in Tolmaire's 'In the Evening by the Moonlight' (photo: Alejandro Ramos)

Lorraine Hansberry is writing frantically throughout "In the Evening by the Moonlight."

Now playing at Fort Mason in a premiere production by Hansberry's namesake theater company, Traci Tolmaire's drama imagines a single night of spiky conversation between the "Raisin In The Sun" playwright (played by Tolmaire) and two other queer Black giants of 20th-century American culture, author James Baldwin (Rotimi Agbabiaka) and musician Nina Simone (Ryan Nicole Austin).

The successes and failures of the U.S. civil rights movement, the trap of capitalism, and the persistent obliviousness of liberal white Americans to the realities of Black experience are just a few of many subjects touched on in 90 brisk minutes that buzz with righteous indignation, fierce intelligence and grateful camaraderie.

Traci Tolmaire as Lorraine Hansberry 'In the Evening by the Moonlight' (photo: Alejandro Ramos)  

Throughout it all, Hansberry writes.

During the show's opening, closing and several mid-way moments, we see her at her desk, frustrated, trying to capture every detail of her thoughts and observations on paper. It's 1963 and, as the script eventually reveals, she has recently endured several surgeries and is suffering with chronic illness (The real Hansberry succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1965).

Designer Carlos Aceves' clever set underscores Hansberry's fevered wish to gather and synthesize every aspect of her world, to lock it down as literature in what time she has left. The brickwork in her Waverly Place apartment is transforming into books; the walls are papered with manuscript pages; calligraphic ink strokes sweep the floor.

In a script informed by extensive reading and archival research, playwright Tolmaire struggles with some of the same impulses that vex Hansberry: She's trying to process so much input in such a short amount of time.

As her trio of characters zips from mourning the assasination of Medgar Evers, to debating the use of "Negro" versus "Black," to examining racial stereotypes in the music business, to reprising a powerful confrontation with Robert Kennedy (a high point of Tolmaire's performance), I found myself wishing for less breadth and more depth. Less primer, more drama.

Ryan Nicole Austin as Nina Simone 'In the Evening by the Moonlight' (photo: Alejandro Ramos)  

Agbabiaka does an excellent job conveying Baldwin's quicksilver toggling between plummy elder statesman and sassy sissy modes. As Simone, Austing is appropriately regal and self-contained, making it all the more touching when, toward evening's end, she asks Hansberry about her health and they snuggle, platonically, on a couch. Her charismatic presence helps compensate for a role that is underwritten compared to Baldwin and Hansberry.

The most powerful moments of "In the Evening by the Moonlight" come not when its characters are sharing anecdotal accounts about past events but when they're having fresh, personality-revealing interactions within the real time of the play.

In one scene, Baldwin and Simone, who both grew up poor, tease Hansberry about her middle-class upbringing and financial security. In another, — disturbingly rendered by Agbabiaka and director Margo Hall — Baldwin, returning from a run the bodega to buy cigarettes, suffers a frightening anxiety attack which leads to a discussion about government surveillance of high profile Black citizens.

The bracing immediacy of these scenes, along with the palpable, desperate ambition Tolmaire's Hansberry exudes from start to finish, help elevate "In the Evening by the Moonlight" above its occasional documentary doldrums.

'In the Evening by the Moonlight,' through July 2. $15-$50. Young Performers Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D. www.lhtsf.org

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