The UT Theatre and Dance 2022/2023 season opened with “…but you could’ve held my hand” by JuCoby Johnson. The thoughtful, imaginative play follows four friends, Max (Kobe Williams), Eddie (Yusef Dixon), Charlotte/Charlie (Faith Anderson), and Marigold (Se’An Boatner), who stick together through life’s challenges, their love for each other carrying them through divorce, struggles with gender identity, and addiction.
Under Braxton Rae’s direction, there’s something magical about the world of the play, a magic centered in the characters’ friendship. Their bond is evident from the play’s first moments, as the talented cast starts the performance dancing together, which turns to playfully jostling each other.
This movement based prologue gives way to the foursome’s initial meeting as ten-year-olds, sneaking cake at a wedding. As each arrives on stage, they brush rose petals off of themselves, both a literal possibility of the wedding setting and a marker that there’s something special about these characters.
Each wears a white outfit dip dyed with a green to red gradient, designed by Yvonne L. Miranda — clothes simultaneously neutral yet that add to a garden motif, suggesting an abstraction of stems and roses. The costumes reinforce the play’s non-literal layers and make the time jumps more fluid as scenes progress in a nonlinear chronology. Characters simply add a hat or jacket (also dyed in keeping with the costume scheme) and move from age 10 to their 30s, back to age 15 and again to adulthood.
Beyond the cast of four, two dancers adorned with gold foil in their hair and gold body paint float in and out through the action of the play, guiding changes in place and time. Their movements are sometimes fluid, at other times they dance naturalistically to the R&B music the characters are listening to.
The set, designed by Alex Rockey, is a kind of imagined garden, a place where life unfolds and where people grow into fuller versions of themselves. The floor treatment features giant roses, and hanging pendant lights glow during an outdoor scene. In the different seasons of the characters’ lives, the impressive central animatronic tree grows and then loses its leaves, its branches wilting. But the space is also flexible enough to become multiple different indoor spaces: a funeral parlor, a high school hallway and a reception hall.
Even when the four friends don’t know exactly how to help each other, their love provides support. Not shying away from the heavy-hitting moments of life, the play makes space for Black wholeness, not lingering on Black trauma.
Throughout, the naturalistically acted scenes seamlessly integrate expressionist movement. The character introduced at age 10 as Charlotte renames herself Charlie at age 15, and dances out of a dress into a new identity and outfit as her friends surround her with love. In other moments we see that defining that new identity is complicated and at times frustrating for Charlie. Yet the committed friend group remains supportive when Charlie decides to drop the identity marker of “woman” during the prom and fights against being repeatedly misgendered by family members in a scene set years later.
Each of the four characters remains compelling and differentiated, their humor and authenticity genuine. Their faithfulness to each other, even as marriages end and members of the group go through periods of physical and emotional distance, demonstrates the power of a kind of love that is willing to evolve. The actors moves skillfully through their character’s ages, capturing the consistencies of their personalities and their maturation.
The play ends with a ceremonial scene, each member of the foursome asking the others “Will you take care of me?” To which they all answer, “yes.” This ritual of care gives way to another kind of ritual — the dancers reclothe the four friends in celestial robes, crowns, and gold bracelet cuffs, leaving the audience with a final look that adds honor and regality to their mutual care.
Appropriately, joyfully, this final ceremony is done to The “5” Royales’ song “Dedicated To The One I Love:”
I know it’s hard for you my baby
Because it’s hard for me my baby
And the darkest hour is just before dawn.
“… but you could’ve held my hands” continues through Oct. 16 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, UT campus theatredance.utexas.edu/event/you-couldve-held-my-hand