If I say nothing else about Star Finch’s Josephine’s Feast (world premiere runs through August 20 at The Magic Theatre in the Fort Mason Center, SF), I’ll say that it justifies my skipping out on Thanksgiving in recent years. Although I find myself between the generations represented in the play (Boomers and Gen Z), Finch’s script nails down the discomfort that would make someone—Black folks in particular—want to skip out on gatherings with those with whom you share a bloodline.
Finch’s play doesn’t take place during Thanksgiving, but rather during the birthday celebrations of its title character (played by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre artistic director Margo Hall). Not only that, but it takes place during the COVID lockdowns of 2020, making it one of the few productions I’ve seen do so—among the first was Magic’s staged-audio production of Bennett Fisher’s Shelter. The combination of a worldwide pandemic and the personal milestone lead the divorced SF matriarch to reassess her life. As such, she intends to announce a major life change during the party.
The small group of guests includes her daughters, butch-lez Lexx (Brittany Frazier) and the stylish Amaya (Jasmine Milan Williams); her brother Tony (Donald Lacy, Jr.); Tony’s son Jaden (Tre’Vonne Bell); and free spirit Lani (Tierra Allen); whose connection to Josephine is never made clear. Over the course of the gathering, drinks will be consumed, secrets will be revealed, and many a joke will be made commenting on the age difference of those gathered. By the time it’s all over, no one will look at the others the same way again.
In a way, someone’s life will come to an end.
When Finch’s script (directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang) keeps its focus directly on Josephine, it’s on fire. Aside from the fact that you can’t go wrong with a Margo Hall performance, those scenes are when Finch’s focus becomes myopic in the best possible way, treating its title character as a tree that still has room to grow, and aims to do just that with however much time she has left. It’s also when character-to-character interactions are the strongest. In the background of the main action is a subplot about Amaya’s recent engagement to the unseen Gavin, more out of obligation than any real love for him. Josephine not only recognizes this, but also the fact that similar circumstances led her to marry Lexx and Amaya’s father. A late scene in which Josephine and Amaya discuss this may be the strongest in the entire play.
Where the script isn’t so strong is when it too often plays the “generation gap” card for easy laughs. One of the two biggest problems with the script is when it goes for low-hanging fruit quips about Millennials missing out on everything because they’re always on their phones and boomers whining “In my day …” at every little modern advancement. A few of them land, but the easiest ones to remember are the ones that don’t make a lot of sense. (Josephine is a Black woman in her 50s in 2020, but we’re expected to believe she’s never heard the word “bae”?)
Such heavy-handed commentary falls flat when compared to other scenes in the same script, such as Lexx’s hypocrisy of being a feminist, but believing her mother should be obligated to her family first. Scenes in which Amaya and Lexx speak openly about sex and relationships, or when Josephine and Tony ponder whether their own mother suffered from self-doubt and unfulfilled dreams—these form the beating heart of the play, and serve as better commentary than the jokes about Jaden’s attempts at being an influencer.
In fact, the characters of Jaden and Lani are pretty superfluous to the script as a whole. Both actors are great (Bell is recognizable from Z Space’s Boys Go to Jupiter and Allen from Cutting Ball’s The Real Sappo) and Lani at least figures into the climax. But she and Jaden (who flirts with her before the audience knows if they’re related or not) have so little to actually do that they could have been dropped all together. Perhaps Jaden should have been Gavin (which, no doubt, would have led to an amazing telling-off by Josephine) and Lani had been Josephine’s younger friend who inspires her to make a life change—then the two would have felt better connected to the others. As it stands, they seem like outsiders in the ensemble.
To Finch and Chang’s credit, they picked an excellent group of collaborators to bring the story to life. I don’t know if Brittany Frazier (whom I’ve seen in everything from Hedda Gabler to Samm-Art Williams’ Home) and the ever-lively Jasmine Williams have worked together before, but they bring the right amount of contrasting energy to the sisters. And considering that the play’s other biggest problem is that Lexx does something unforgivable in the final scenes, it takes a great performer to still make the character human. It’s also clear Lacy is having a ball as live-wire Tony. Yet the real stars may be costumer Kyo Yohena (who decks out Amaya in a neon-orange power suit) and scenic designer Tanya Arellana (whose detailed San Francisco penthouse set is too lovely to actually be real.)
Given that the show is set during the first year of the still-ongoing pandemic, for once I’d be remiss not to bring it up. It was heartening to see every character enter wearing a mask (where Yohena found Amaya’s clear plastic mask, I’d love to know), and to see The Magic still enforcing its mask mandate. A few patrons tried to get around it, but The Magic still has air purifying towers set up around the theatre. In fact, I’m amazed that the opening night full house only gave my Aranet4 some CO² readings that topped at 1294ppm – which may be the lowest reading I’ve gotten for a show at Fort Mason.
Though the script could use more fine-tuning, Josephine’s Feast is bolstered by an excellent cast, strong direction, and top-notch production design. It’s a shame that even today, few shows see the value of stories about Black women over 40 or acknowledge the still-ongoing pandemic and the impact it continues to have on everyone’s lives. Finch’s script does both and that’s when it’s at its best.
Hell, spending time with this family might be less awkward than spending time with you own.
JOSEPHINE’S FEAST world premiere runs through the August 20. The Magic Theatre in the Fort Mason Center, SF. Tickets and more info here.