In a world premiere presented by Austin Playhouse, R. Eric Thomas’ new play “Nightbird,” asks “What should be put where Confederate monuments once stood?”
The play follows Chelle (Taji Senior) a Black queer artist, as she plans an artistic response to an empty plinth that, until recently, supported a monument to Robert E. Lee in the Baltimore park across from her childhood home. (By coincidence, Austin Playhouse’s 22nd Street venue is just 600 feet away from four similarly empty plinths at the University of Texas.)
After an extended research period, the pressure is on Chelle to present a finalized plan at the Juneteenth festival that her energetic brother Willard (Hollis L. Edwards III) is organizing in just six days. But the siblings fundamentally disagree on what their activism should look like.
Delving into questions of authenticity, legacy, and the power of art, under Marcus McQuirter’s direction, “Nightbird” play explores family dynamics, afro-pessimism, and afro-futurism with nuance.
When Chelle returns from her research trip puffing on a vape and announcing that the concept of hope has been colonized, her brother Willard is disturbed. But she is equally put off by his choices. A podcaster and member of a resistance choir, Willard recently adopted the stage name “Cousin,” which he describes as an “affectation” and “rebrand” to extend his reach. When Chelle criticizes this new moniker, calling Willard a “magical dandy of resistance good vibes,” it’s just the beginning of the siblings’ idealistic sparring.
Chelle wants to force people to see the lack of progress in the United States, and even wonders whether it’s possible to get revenge through art. But for Willard, cultivating community and happiness are important acts of resistance against an anti-black culture. As part of a locally important family with a history of civil rights activism and community organizing, the question of what Mom and Dad would say constantly hangs over their debates.
Meanwhile, an outsider to this sibling dynamic, charming and candid interior decorator Thalia (Indiia Wilmott) moves through the house adjusting her design scheme (originally heavily influenced by African Art) to better suit her client’s preferences. As Thalia removes masks and heavy wooden furniture, Chelle hangs up her research images — symbols of the Confederacy. As the décor changes, the visual language of Theada Haining’s set design and Lara Toner Haddock and Grace Ramsden’s properties design suggests that Chelle is going too far.
Throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, Chelle imagines sculptures of President Barak Obama, sound installations, and projections of variations on Harriet Tubman, but none of it feels right. Thalia, whose career involves selecting art to live with, becomes a sounding board. Operating outside of the siblings’ shared language of smart rapid-fire punches, she allows her professional distance to soften into friendship, and provides humor, as well as valuable counterpoints to Chelle and Willard, through anecdotes about celebrity interior design projects and Star Trek.
Bringing their characters to life with complexity and charisma, the performers effortlessly tackle Thomas’s sharp, dense language. As Chelle searches for a meaningful artistic response throughout the play’s second half, however, the energy dips and the audience acutely feels her frustration and struggle against time. The final plot points and symbols are inventive, but their resonances get lost as the play stretches on.
Yet, the play ends by embracing the unresolved, invites further discussion that includes and goes beyond responses to monuments.
Unpacking how the aesthetics of race appear in public and private space, “Nightbird” synthesizes current events and puts a range of Black viewpoints and cultural criticisms into conversation through fully realized characters.
“Nightbird” continues through March 26 at Austin Playhouse West Campus, 405 W. 22nd St. Info austinplayhouse.com