'Josephine's Feast' at the Magic Theatre

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday August 15, 2023
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Britney Frazier, Tierra Allen and Jasmine Milan Williams in 'Josephine's Feast' (photo: Jay Yamada)
Britney Frazier, Tierra Allen and Jasmine Milan Williams in 'Josephine's Feast' (photo: Jay Yamada)

A grand buffet of ideas crowds the table in "Josephine's Feast," the world premiere play by Star Finch being presented by the Magic Theatre and Campo Santo through this weekend.

Over the course of a busily absorbing 90 minutes, you'll enjoy a taste of fourth-wave feminism, a few nibbles of racial tension, forkfuls of family drama, some saucy comedy, and a dip into the supernatural.

This is a play that, while ultimately undercooked, offers plenty of fodder for post-prandial conversation. The show's titular centerpiece is an empty-nested, long-divorced, middle-class mother, played with an endearing balance of anxiety and panache by Margo Hall.

We meet Josephine home, alone, on the morning of her birthday dinner. She's composing a presentation she plans to share over her grown daughters Sami (Britney Frazier), a theory-entangled quick-to-condescend lesbian graduate student, Amaya, a cheerful, materialistic make-up artist (Jasmine Milan Williams), her brother Tony (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) and nephew Jaden (Tre'Vonne Bell).

Having dedicated many years to being a daughter, sister, wife, and mother, Josephine has decided to dedicate the rest of her life to herself. She's reclaiming her time.

Quoting her grandmother's wisdom, Josephine declares, "In order to be reborn, you've got to die before you die." She's developed a close friendship with an artist ten years her junior and found herself aspiring to new levels of creativity and personal independence.

We've heard this line of thinking expressed by white women on stage and screen for decades, but it's refreshing to see it put into action in the context of an African American family. Josephine seems ready to step away from the stereotype of the soul-nurturing, self-sacrificing, keeping-it-all-together Mama and step fully into her own personhood.

Jasmine Milan Williams and Margo Hall in 'Josephine's Feast' (photo: Jay Yamada)  

When Josephine complains that her daughters have ceaselessly leaned on her throughout their lives, we believe her because Hall easily wins our trust with her earnest presence; not because of anything in Finch's script. For most of the play, there is little beyond Josephine's assertion to suggest her children are particularly demanding.

A vicious late-in-the-game outburst during which Sami contemptuously dismisses her mother's hopes and dreams comes out of left field, both in terms of what's preceded it —typical family squabbles, talk of relationship troubles, interludes of cheerful and woeful nostalgia— and in light of this elder daughter's social justice-oriented academic background. There's something eating Sami that "Josephine's Feast" fails to serve up.

The two male characters are similarly underwritten. We're happy to spend time with them because both Bell and Lacy —fueled by Finch's well-honed dialogue— make for humorous good company. There's a bit of arrested adolescence to each of them, but they don't seem particularly reliant on Josephine. A sixth character, Sami's upbeat, sensible college friend, Lani (Teirra Allen), has similarly little dramatic function.

Other than Josephine, only Amaya —played with charming believability by Williams— has a clear and substantial story arc. She's struggling with the possibility of ending a romantic relationship and gradually comes to realize, with her mother's gentle help, that her fiancé shares many characteristics with her father.

Throughout the evening a mysterious storm rises outside the family home. Russell Champa's lighting, Joan Osato's video projections and Lana Palmer's sound creating a slow-building, apocalyptic edginess to the proceedings, in the mode of Steven Karam's "The Humans."

Yet when Josephine finally makes her anticipated presentation, it's a head-scratcher; far less life-changing than the build-up has led us expect.

Playwright Finch serves up small portions of interesting notions without enough of any one to leave you sated. Still, you'll walk out of the theater with plenty to chew on.

'Josephine's Feast,' through August 20. $30-$70. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Bldg. D. (415) 441-8822. www.magictheatre.org

Ava Roy in We Players' 'The Keeper'  

We Players' The Keeper'
Artists who work in almost any medium will empathize with Caretta Caretta, the lighthouse keeper whose surprisingly madcap solitary existence is chronicled in "The Keeper," an outdoor production by We Players, playing Fridays through Sundays in August at the CalShakes amphitheater in Orinda.

"You're working in isolation and not really knowing whether what you do is connecting with anyone," explains Ava Roy, the artistic director of We Players who plays Caretta under the direction of Britt Lauer. Then again, Roy adds, "You're free to be a little 'off.' Nobody's around to tell you that you're weird."

During its debut run last summer in Alameda, "The Keeper," was warmly received by audiences of all ages.

Noting that the show originated with her musing on Beckett and Nietzsche and "Moby-Dick" during the pandemic, Roy says it's ironic that, "It became this wild and whimsical and welcoming thing, more surreal and absurdist. We've had some of our most profound reactions from six-to-eight-year-olds."

'The Keeper,' through Aug. 27. Sliding scale, from $20. 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (415) 547-0189. www.weplayers.org

'Reciprocating Pumps' (photo: Dirk Alphin)  

'Reciprocating Pumps' at The Marsh
Playwright Dirk Alphin, a longtime fixture of San Francisco's arts scene, helped establish legendary queer venues the Valencia Rose Cabaret and Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint.

The title of his new play, "Reciprocating Pumps," set in the late 1990s, suggests the echoes and ironies in store. Zack, a gay former lifeguard, is terminally ill. On the evening he plans to end his life, he is joined by a friend he once saved from drowning.

The five-character drama plays on Saturdays and Sundays at the Marsh.

'Reciprocating Pumps' through Aug. 27. Sliding scale, from $20. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St. (415) 282-3055 www.themarsh.org

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