Come Down Burning -02/19/1999
By Kia Corthron. Cast: Crystal A. Dickinson, Tinashe Kajese, Shanola Gralyn Hampton, Kendra Afiya Charles, Bryson Jarell Davis-Johnson. Director: Lisa Gaye Dixon. Scenic Designer: Joseph J. Rial. Costume Designer: Carla Faye Robinson. Lighting Designer: Logan Shunmugam. Sound Designer: Shawn Parr. Properties Designer: Amy T. Walker. Dramaturg: Ann Haugo.
The University of Illinois Department of Theater.
Through February 19, 1999. Studio Theater, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Urbana. Box office: 333-6280.
The people in “Come Down Burning” are not the sort you’d find in a history book.
These everyday, powerless people -- the kind you might see across town or next door or in that ramshackle house at the top of the hill -- live everyday, powerless lives, lives that in playwright Kia Corthron’s hands are just as important, just as political, as any president’s or prime minister’s.
Even in these modest surroundings, big issues emerge, as two poor black women grapple with equal access to education, abortion rights, healthcare and the legacy of injustice. In the end, they prove that they deserve our attention, our sympathy, our respect. And certainly better care.
Guest directing for Krannert Center’s Studio Theater, Lisa Gaye Dixon does a masterful job of making something extraordinary from these ordinary lives, weaving a web around these two complicated women. Skoolie, so named because she tried school but “spit it out,” is pragmatic, fiercely controlling and proud. A hairdresser and midwife of sorts, she does what she needs to do to get by. Skoolie usually does just fine, even though she can’t walk and moves around on a little wheeled cart.
Her younger sister, Tee, is more immature, careless, and a bit of a dreamer, as she tries to bring up her three children without depending too much on Skoolie. Tee seems mercurial, defensive, more than a bit of a mess, but we find out she has hidden talents -- knowledge of trees and stars and faraway places -- that really never found a way to blossom in her difficult life.
These characters are written in full, with depth and life and spark. Female characters like these are few and far between in contemporary American theater, and maybe that’s why these two are so fascinating. With excellent performances by Crystal A. Dickinson as Skoolie and
Tinashe Kajese as Tee, the sisters act like real siblings who know just how to push each other’s buttons. As they alternately bicker and band
together against the world, you get the feeling they’ve been fighting the same battles for years and years. Physically and emotionally, Dickinson and Kajese are the real deal.
Although the sisters certainly take center stage, the underlying issue in “Come Down Burning” is children -- having them, caring for them, standing up for them, deciding not to have them. These are women trying to make choices about their lives, to control -- in some way, large or small -- their own destiny.
The tension builds as Corthron weaves injustice, both past and present, through her naturalistic dialogue, as she moves inevitably from everyday occurrences like haircuts and school scuffles to a dramatic, terrible conclusion.
I found “Come Down Burning” very moving, not the least because it is so intimate. This is a small story and a slender play. When bad things happen to these people, it breaks our hearts as well as theirs. Joseph J. Rial’s scenic design contributes to the intimate feel, with a simple, homespun set bracketed by high arched beams and a blue sky beyond.
Supporting actors complete the tableau, adding other shades to the story. Shanola Gralyn Hampton is confident and classy as Bink, a longtime friend, while fourth-grader Kendra Afiya Charles and second-grader Bryson Jarell Davis-Johnson make a charming, lively impression as Tee’s children.
The only downside to “Come Down Burning” is that this production only runs for four performances. It deserves more.