You certainly can…not touch it. And once you see this production of “can i touch it,” especially if you have ever posed this and other imposing questions about a Black person’s hair, you will understand why not. Company One Theatre presents this 4 person piece about “beauty”– from beauty supply products and gentrification to who defines beauty, the price of beauty, its deeper costs, and implied cultural value as well as the social injustice and racial inequity that these distinctions breed. All of this is examined by way of a lucid, accessible, well-played and cleverly- conceived script.
This world premiere production by Boston playwright Francisca Da Silveira is adroitly helmed by C1 co-founder and Associate Artistic Director Summer L. Williams. It is not only performed onstage at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, but is also set in that Boston neighborhood, and in which the transplanted Cape Verdean playwright grew up, specifically “along Dudley St. in that blur between Roxbury and Dorchester the heart of the community.”
Shay Solomon (Chris Everett) owns an African beauty supply store there and the play opens with a confrontation in the bank with the powers that be. Shay has recently fallen behind on payments to the bank which first raised her interest without consultation, and now has rejected her loan application. The bank manager (Mark W. Soucy) instead pressures her to sell her business, part of the bank’s plan to buy up foreclosed properties and “gentrify.” This means locals will be priced out of their own neighborhoods, and small business owners like Shay who’s saving to put her daughter Ruth (Jada Saintlouis) through college, will be stranded. Shay’s niece Meeka (Schanaya Barrows) also works in the store and has some inventive ideas about how to use social media to shine a light on and jumpstart the activism required to develop the community while it maintains control from within.
The curtain opens to reveal Shay’s store via a beauty of a set (Cristina Todesco), an historic building (the show’s set is set within the historic and beautiful Strand, a richly resonant meta-moment) with white columns, sky high shelving on which tall vertical displays of multicolored wigs (Cassandra Queen and Ashley “Saturn” Cooper) hang out in a rainbow of colors and styles. Yes, you can touch them– until they’re owned; then they become an expression and extension of the wearer.
This is ultimately a story of identity and how it reverberates through the political and the social. These themes are crystallized in key moments when this intergenerational trio–mother/ daughter/cousin, an extended family of interrelationships central to every neighborhood, is deployed in a uniquely theatrical way. The play really snaps to life when this threesome steps forward, breaks the forth wall, and addresses the audience directly with several pivotal questions, then proceeds to offer individual but unequivocal answers which make us think about respect and personhood.
Chris Everett anchors the ensemble as an upstanding, outspoken, grounded, mother, business owner, and community leader. In full disclosure, I once was blessed to share a stage with Chris in ONWARD VOTES FOR WOMEN, and whom you may also recognize along with her particular brand of gravitas from the film DON’T LOOK UP. As her daughter Ruth, Jada Saintlouis brings a youthful sweetness and optimism to the part. And Schanaya Barrows nearly steals the show in a dual role first as Shay’s spunky niece Meeka whose every retort flashes to an hilarious punchline; later she’ll appear as the overbearing “Beth” who patronizes and preens as she pushes “revitalization” while attempting to outmaneuver Shay and local community leaders. Mark W. Soucy is nimble in a triple role as the aforementioned condescending banker, later a neighborhood activist and Ruth’s godfather, and the friendly neighborhood barber whom Meeka, despite his being white, still allows to cut her hair.
Though the play is set in 2019, the questions it asks are even more urgent and resonant now. If “can i touch it” (indeed, a provocative title) also refers to affordable housing prices in 2022, the answer is definitely “no.” But most importantly gentrification and all that it implies on a deeper level about culture, economics, race, identity etc, is a tricky dance, and this play jumpstarts a myriad of conversations about how to straddle those tensions without sounding preachy or overly agenda driven. Despite one scene involving some sort of rattling upheaval which I didn’t quite understand, the play succeeds in finding credible, organic ways to deal with large social issues in a personal way. Shay, Ruth, and Meeka ask all the right questions as relatable, credible characters from neighborhoods that don’t often show up on stage; Da Silveira’s play also reminds us that theater is not only an entertaining vehicle for surfacing underlying issues in the communities it represents, but also expands the idea of what community is by providing a safe forum for diverse audiences to intersect around subjects that are “touchy.”
See “can i touch it” is presented by Company One Theatre in partnership with the City of Boston’s Office of Arts and Culture at The Strand Theatre through AUGUST 13!