Phoenix: Coming of age in home haunted by history

NOTE: “The Magnolia Ballet” is not a “ballet” in the conventional sense. The Google/Oxford definition of ballet is “an artistic dance form performed to music using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures.” This drama, the world premiere of a new play by Terry Guest at the Phoenix Theatre through April 10, is neither a musical nor danced-through, but displays its own rhythm as it deals with codified steps in a society long steeped in restrictive tradition. — JLB

By Wendy Carson

Ghosts exist, whether you believe in them or not. They are especially prevalent in the South where so much pain and struggle caused by slavery, racism, and general prejudices have caused countless souls unrest.

Young Ezekial (Isaiah Moore), “Z,” the sixth of his name, knows these ghosts all too well. Descended from slaves who bought freedom, only to be pressed into servitude again, they haunt his days and nights. His best friend Danny (Andrew Martin), has different issues — a mix of pride and shame in his family heritage of slave-owners, lynchers, and KKK members. 

The two families have long lived next to each other in rural Georgia in a tentative peace, but the current generation are close enough to be brothers. In fact, Z and Danny have apparently shared a lot.

Ezekial’s widower father (Daniel Martin), doesn’t think his son should be spending so much time away from the homestead and the endless chores needed for upkeep. While he’s not an outwardly affectionate man, he tries to do his best for his son. 

As the boys are working on a school project about the Civil War, Z is urged by his father to look through the shed for some of his grandfather’s old papers to help out. There he finds a trove of love letters that will forever change his life, showing him he has much more in common with Grandfather Ezekial than he imagined.

Floating throughout the story is an Apparition (Eddie Dean), ever-present and mostly observing rather than interfering. 

Moore is superb in his portrayal of a gay youth who just wants to enjoy his life and childhood. He brings out the joys and frustrations of the character, especially his quest to discover the truth of the letters and their author.

Daniel Martin gives a delicate performance as a father trying to do the best for his son by instilling in him a fierce work ethic while hardening him to the truth of the world. He also makes a delightful cameo as Danny Mitchell’s (white) father. 

Andrew Martin shows Danny as a simple country boy who, while not ashamed of his racist background, seems to not even notice that his best friend is black. While insisting he is not gay in the slightest, he does have a deep love for his friend that challenges his admonitions.

Dean ably takes on the role of the glue that holds this narrative together, the spirit of past and present that, in their own way, calls the tune of this “dance.”

In the first step of a National New Play Network Rolling Premiere (it will later be staged afresh in New York and Michigan), director Mikael Burke makes both subtle and bold choices, from the way Z shifts his demeanor between having to “man up” and being himself, to the thematic use of “outrunning the fire.” Kudos also to fight/intimacy choreographer Laraldo Anzaldua, and set design by Inseung Park. 

Designated “Part 1” of a planned trilogy, this “Magnolia Ballet” is a complete story with much to say, think upon, and discuss. Find the Phoenix at 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis; find information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

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