Every once in a (great) while, a new work in Philadelphia premieres with such power and promise that it demands to be seen by a much wider audience. That play is Mrs. Harrison at Azuka Theatre. That playwright is R. Eric Thomas.
The intensity of Mrs. Harrison flows from the smooth waters of memory that hide the tempest raging beneath. At the 10-year reunion of their graduating class (at an unnamed but “prestigious” university) Holly (Brandi Burgess) corners Aisha (Danielle Leneé) in a well-appointed faculty restroom. Both studied English literature together; since graduation, Holly’s life has foundered, moving from the male-dominated comedy stand-up circuit to low-paying, low-status gigs as a storyteller. Aisha, by contrast, has premiered works Off-Broadway featuring Hollywood celebrities (the play name-drops), pitched TV series in Los Angeles, and launched several plays at the hipper regional theaters across the country.
And Holly wants to know why. Over 75 tortured, riveting minutes of theater, the two explore topics ranging from anguish over a friendship suddenly ended to the way a writer’s life is ultimately like any other job to how Aisha arrived at the idea for her breakthrough work (the title of the play). Thomas’ plot hints at stolen authorship and suggests mental health issues stemming from childhood trauma, and some racial animus creeps in.
For a play that consists largely of the exposition of memory and time (at reunions, people talk about the interim), Burgess and Leneé captivate with their performances. Burgess veers chaotically from being sympathetically washed up at 30 to a fragile and spiteful viper. Leneé smoothly portrays the polish of success that conceals its dark origins, with the narcissist’s light dismissal of other people’s concerns.
Thomas’ writing engages, letting Burgess fill her stories with a sarcastic, wounded humor. Some of the transitions need polish, and some of the lines intimate the male’s voice behind these two female characters (“ninja kegels,” really?). But the play’s potent conflict explores much deeper themes of authorship: who owns ideas, who has the right to what stories, which side more deserves telling, and whether a universality of narrative transcends the racial origins of its writer(s).
Mrs. Harrison delivers on all fronts. The stakes are personal and intellectual, the emotions sincere even when ringed with sarcasm. The hurt and self-righteousness burn through 10 years of memory with immense power. Thomas paints the conflict in terms of ideas that matter. The more fractured and factious this country becomes, the more a play like Mrs. Harrison will matter.
Through May 20 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: Pay what you will. Information: 215-563-1100, azukatheatre.org.