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PerformanceStage ReviewJewelle Gomez's 'Unpacking in P’Town' lights out on 1959...

Jewelle Gomez’s ‘Unpacking in P’Town’ lights out on 1959 chosen family vacay

Playwright says her latest calls upon real life, but its catty quintet seem oddly divorced from the times.

As I watched this show, I thought back to seeing Babes in Ho-lland at Shotgun. In that review, I discussed how most marginalized folks yearn for “the freedom to be boring.” Being considered “a credit” or “disgrace” to your people is exhausting because it requires continuous effort with little reward to one’s mental health. True freedom is the ability to relax without having to worry that what you do in your leisure time can serve as commentary on how your people are treated in the world.

Jewelle Gomez’s Unpacking in P’Town (world premiere through March 31 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center) reminisces about such a time in 1959. As indicated by its title, the play takes us to Provincetown, Massachusetts circa 1959. Like the rest of the country, the town has a considerable amount of racial animosity. But for one lovely stretch of beach, we see a safe space, much like Tennessee Williams’s vision of New Orleans, where racial (and sexual orientation-related) biases take a backseat to the personal dramas and abundant gossip of regulars.

(l-r) Matt Weimer, ShawnJ West, Awele

This particular length of sand is home to a beach house frequented by an interracial group of former theatre performers. They includes the house’s owner Scottie (Matt Weimer), who is as Scottish as his name implies; his Black boyfriend Buster (ShawnJ West), with whom Scottie is currently having a tiff; Black lesbian painter Minty (Desiree Rogers), newly single and unable to keep her eyes off the girl at the local pizza parlor; veteran Black performer Lydia (Awele), who is quite aware that they’re on former Wampanoag land; and university-age local Anando (Stephen Kanaski), who dreams of escaping his small town for art school in the big city, but finds himself more than a little wrapped up in the older group members’ goings-on. And let’s not forget Miss Keppish, the spirit of a Wampanoag who seems to be connecting with the group.

The main thing working against the script is that it feels like a work-in-progress. I say this as someone who’s not only seen Jewelle Gomez’s work, but also performed for them (at NCTC, no less). But this one feels undercooked. Its plot-free story recalls Arthur Miller and August Wilson (like the latter, Gomez also has a multi-play cycle, of which this is part), and it’s a helluva lotta fun to watch this catty quintet dish, dance, and recall their days of high drama. Yet, the ingredients don’t quite form a palatable stew.

Desiree Rogers

At its best, Unpacking in P’Town raises captivating issues. An interracial queer couple is forced to confront the unspoken issues of racism in their relationship (Scottie’s father is on his way, so he wants to present himself as single, and sub in Lydia as Buster’s beard). A multiracial individual embraces one part of their marginalized ethnicity, but shuns another. Even young Anando, who is not only realizing his queerness, but is saddled with the tidal wave of emotions that come with being young and (thinking you’re) in love.

Sadly, none of these threads really go anywhere. In fact, one of the more frustrating elements of the story is that the issues get more and more serious as the play goes on, but the ending wraps everything up in a nice little bow, as if to say “no harm, no foul.” Mind you, these characters don’t need to have any knock-down, drag-out brawls to resolve their longstanding issues, but the resolutions we’re given are incredibly anti-climactic.

When we’re told that the Klan were burning crosses nearby just a few short years ago, that the public perception of the house would change if they knew queer folks stayed there, and that then-Senator John Kennedy’s presidential aspirations are just beginning to heat up, it all speaks to a world that is about to change forever, whether the characters know it or not. That they find themselves in roughly the same place at the end of the story seems disconnected. (Incidentally, Gomez herself was in attendance the night I saw the show. She told other audience members that the characters were based on real P’Town residents of the time, with Lydia being based on Gomez’s grandmother. One can only speculate how much of this story was specifically drawn from real life—one imagines those resolutions left more of an impact.)

(l-r) Awele and ShawnJ West

Speaking of changing times: before our enhanced safety performance (which still featured the only QR-scanning vax check I can recall in Bay Area theatre) began, I was approached by NCTC executive director Barbara Hodgen. As I’ve built up a well-earned reputation as “that COVID guy”, she made it a point to come to me to tell me that from this point on, the company’s enhanced safety shows would no longer check for proof of vax; they’ll only require masks. She told me this was due to patrons having gotten used to “not sharing that information”, no matter how strongly it was stressed on the website and ticketing platforms. (Indeed, several patrons arrived behind me were surprised that they even needed masks, let alone proof of vax.) To the NCTC’s credit: their HVAC system—along with a reduced audience for this enhanced safety performance—made sure my Aranet4 only read CO² levels as high as about 806ppm during the two-act show. Still, this may have been the last Bay Area theatre or troupe to check for vaccines at all.

It’s always good to know a writer like Gomez is still producing work, but this isn’t her at her best. Unpacking in P’Town feels more like an exercise than a passion project. It features a cast of NCTC dependables and highlights a little-known period in history, but it doesn’t leave the sort of lasting impression for which its author is celebrated.

UNPACKING IN P’TOWN world premiere runs through March 31. New Conservatory Theatre Centre, SF. Tickets and more 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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