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PerformanceStage Review'Babes in Ho-lland': Black lesbians deserve cute rom-coms, too

‘Babes in Ho-lland’: Black lesbians deserve cute rom-coms, too

Unexpected love in the college dorm brings up memories of '90s sitcoms in Shotgun Players' latest.

Here’s the thing most straight white cis hetero folk don’t often get about art made by marginalized folks: We want the freedom to be boring.

Whenever a work by a marginalized person gets mainstream recognition, there will inevitably be people of that marginalized group who complain about not seeing themselves in this popular work. That’s a fair criticism that’s been tossed at blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, but it needs to be tempered with the fact that the mainstream isn’t overflowing with stories by and about people like us.

That doesn’t mean we should pander to said mainstream, but it does mean that ours is a diverse experience: Majority folk get a new milquetoast rom-com every week like clockwork, and no one cares if that rom-com puts straight white people in “a bad light.” So, as we rightfully appraise any and all works, we should remember that we’re forever pushing for the sort of ubiquity to be that goddamn boring on a regular basis—without it “reflecting on our people”.

Babes in Ho-lland (Shotgun Players’ world premiere through February 10 at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley) is playwright Deneen Reynolds-Knott’s attempt to find that rom-com banality with a Black lesbian couple. It’s one character’s attempt to define herself when everyone else has already decided how Black she is or isn’t. This works for the show almost as much as it works against it.

Ciera Eis and Sundiata Ayinde in Shotgun Players’ ‘Babes in Ho-lland.’ Photo by Ben Krantz

The year is 1996, and Ciara (Sundiata Ayinde) is one of the few Black students enrolled in an affluent Pittsburgh, PA university. She’s roomed-up with Kat (Ciera Eis), a white girl who shares Ciara’s love of grunge and punk music, but seems unable to realize that’s she’s in a one-sided relationship with her boyfriend. One day, as Ciara waits to speak with the only Black student counselor, she finds herself waiting alongside one of the other few Black students, Taryn (Tierra Allen). Taryn’s low-income background is a contrast to Ciara’s upper-middle-class life, but the two consider themselves lucky to have found one another in a sea of white faces. It isn’t long before they begin spending all their time together, and for Ciara to discover something about herself that she never realized—not until she kisses Taryn for the first time.

I’m not sure how old Reynolds-Knott is, but I dare say that her image of Blackness in the ‘90s was probably shaped by the sitcoms of the time. As a Black ‘80s kid/‘90s teen myself, I’m not surprised: there was more mainstream Black TV than ever before and it left a lasting impression. (There’s a reason our generations loves Living Single more than The Cosby Show.) I bring this up because the structure of Babes in Ho-lland plays out like the recollection of various sitcom episodes; as if Reynolds-Knott tried to shove an entire season into one two-and-a-half-hour play.

This means certain details are dropped (Ciara has an almost visceral reaction to hearing the weather is overcast at the end of the first scene, but this is never followed up on) or mentioned in passing without elaboration. For instance, the title comes from Ciara and Kat living in the Holland building, which has a reputation for hosting promiscuous co-eds. One doesn’t really get that impression from watching these three ladies go through their own relationship dramas. Other topics—like Kat thinking Taryn (and maybe Ciara?) were admitted through scholarship rather than tuition—seem to be used to fill time rather than evolve organically.

Also, the conversations about Ciara and Taryn’s different backgrounds seem to be lacking any mention of colorism. My guess is that the characters weren’t written as having different complexions, but casting two Black actors of different shades nevertheless raises the questions. 

Yet, director Leigh Rondon-Davis and their cast thrive on amplifying the materials they’re given. From an opening curtain-raise in which the audience is taken by surprise to see a Black girl rockin’ out to Hole’s “Violet” (I was that Black kid) to the “polite” way Taryn nods along when Ciara plays a track from the band Babes in Toyland. Rondon-Davis allows their cast to revel in the skin of their characters as much as set designer Ashley Mendez and costumer Jasmine Williams revel in the aesthetics around said characters. Even though the play goes on for too long (like Return of the King, it suffers from “too many endings” syndrome), one finds themselves wanting to spend time with these characters to see exactly where they end up from where we first met them.

Sundiata Ayinde in Shotgun Players’ ‘Babes in Ho-lland.’ Photo by Ben Krantz

I’m not familiar with the work of Ayinde, but she does well in finding the right tone of “confusion” for Ciara without one thinking that the actor is the one lost. It was odd to once again see Ciara Eis as the white collegiate making a racial faux pas, but it speaks to her skill as a performer that you don’t outright hate her for it, even if the character tries ones patience. Tierra Allen has spent the last few years becoming one of those Bay Area actors you need to keep an eye on, having performed with the likes of Cutting Ball and Magic Theatre. Her performance for Shotgun is another nice feather in their cap.

Having seen the show opening weekend during its first masked matinee, I was relieved to see so many covered faces during the show – even those who showed up not knowing it was a masked show seemed to be on their best behavior once inside. Still, CO² readings on my Aranet4 peaked at 2575ppm by the final bow.

I can imagine a world in which Babes in Ho-lland is a single-season show about Black queerness set in the ‘90s, when queerness was becoming more visible, but Black queer women were still pushed to the sidelines. It’s a story in which the characters and scenes need more room to breathe rather than trying to race towards the end (which features a piece of jewelry that I don’t recall being established earlier).

Having said that, the performers, designers, and director all seem to be enjoying themselves—each finding the moments that color these characters’ lives (no pun intended) as the script tries to race past them.

BABES IN HO-LLAND runs through February 10 at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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