Tanya Barfield’s 2013 play The Call takes on a busload of issues: adoption, race, gentrification, colonialism and AIDS, to name a few.
The result is a long and sometimes meandering ride. Theater J, the resident company at the Washington DC- JCC, had long programmed provocative, heart-wrenching and hotly contested issue plays under the leadership of its former artistic director, Ari Roth, and this one fits right in.
The Call, which premiered at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, feels very much a part of Roth’s wheelhouse; it’s something we’ll likely expect when his new Mosaic Theater takes up residence in Northeast Washington in the fall. What’s a bit out of character for Theater J, though, is this play’s scant connection to Jews or Judaism, even in the loosest, Seinfeld sense.
The Call runs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through May 31 because the Washington Jewish Music Festival was in the DC-JCC’s theater this month. And like the central would-be adoptive couple in the play, Annie and Peter, Theater J has found a rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood in which to wrestle with adoption, race and other heavy matters. The white 40-something pair have an African American lesbian couple as their best friends. We first meet them around a living room coffee table, where Drea, the painter/artist, and her partner Rebecca, the more corporate type, share accounts from their recent trip to Africa. Each couple has good news: Drea and Rebecca have married, while Annie and Peter announce plans to adopt. The meandering explication does not help tighten up the many stories that ultimately get collected into this tale of international adoption.
From one living room dinner party scene to another, Annie (Tessa Klein as a woman both desperate and undecided about wanting a child) and her supportive husband Peter (Jonathan Feuer, who carries secrets) blithely determine that their child should be adopted from Africa.
Barfield provides little concrete contextualization to make this choice seem believable. Adopting internationally and cross racially is much more complicated than both prospective parents imagine, and they haven’t even thought about the child’s needs. It appears it’s all about wanting a baby, at any price. This change of plans, makes Annie and Peter seem flaky, immature, no matter their age fertility-wise, and not prepared for the parenting issues they’ll face with an adopted child, especially one of another race.
Concerns mount. What if the baby from Africa isn’t a baby at all, but a child, possibly wracked with disease or trauma or a family history that could affect her development with her adoptive parents?
And the lesbian couple (Kelly Armstrong as Drea and Joy Jones as Rebecca) throws in the highly fraught issue of white parents mangling their black daughter’s hair – a topic that could be a play in its own right, as hair is a complicated cultural marker carrying far greater weight in the black community than in the white. Simple discussions about “good” versus “bad” hair – white versus black hair – hardly scratch the surface on ideals of beauty, normalcy and assimilation.
An interloper, an African émigré neighbor, enters the mix, adding his own context and wishes to the mounting conundrum of international and interracial adoption. Alemu sees his neighbors’ choice to adopt an African child as a means to help heal his troubled home continent. Bru Ajueyitsi plays his role with aplomb, but it was written with a touch of the “magical Negro” trope: Alemu is the one who opens the door, and Peter and Annie’s minds, to the reality of Africa, rather than the touristic view their lesbian friends held. His Africa is beautiful but needy, filled with children with no shoes or soccer balls or clean syringes for vaccines, all of which he delivers to his neighbors’ door hoping they’ll take it on their adoption trek.
Director Shirley Serotsky, Theater J’s acting artistic director, utilized the Atlas’s black box space well. Tim Jones’ set — a hip urban apartment in front of a backdrop of USAID boxes — illustrates playwright Barfield’s themes.
But as much as The Call sets itself up as an adoption play, it’s a play about too much. Without a roadmap, the audience finds itself in the Frostian dilemma of which path to follow.
The Call, Theater J at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, D.C. Wednesdays through Saturdays through May 31, special noon matinees Wednesday, May 20 and Thursday, May 21.Tickets $35 and up; call (202) 399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org.