There’s a new America on the way. Maybe. First, though, there’s a slew of problems: a tainted inheritance, bones in the walls, and the locksmiths are coming to take away our guns. In the words of one of R. Eric Thomas’ characters, it’s “really, like, a lot”.
Thomas, a senior staff writer at elle.com, won a 2016 Barrymore Award, the 2018 Dramatists Guild Lanford Wilson Award, and a 2017/2018 National New Play Network Commission. “Safe Space” is his latest script, and makes its world premiere with Single Carrot this month. Last year the Carrots moved out of their Howard Street venue (now home to ArtsCentric) and adopted a new site-specific nomadic model of producing. For “Safe Space” they chose Clifton Mansion, an antebellum structure which was once the summer home of Johns Hopkins (the person, not the school). Owned now by the City of Baltimore, it headquarters the organization Civic Works and hosts a great many events and functions on its lovely panoramic grounds and in its stately formal rooms. “Safe Space” is performed in part of the mansion’s basement — a room approximately 16 feet square with audience seating for 40 split between two opposite walls. If that sounds like an odd location, it’s also completely integral to the story being told within.
In the play, we meet Helen (Alix Fenhagen, SCT’s interim managing director), the founder of a non-profit called “People Powered” based in Baltimore. She has recently inherited her family’s “plantation” (“it’s farmland!” she corrects) in western Maryland. Helen’s lackluster brother Ryan (Matthew Shea), cut out of the inheritance, nevertheless makes frequent use of the house for meetings with his MAGA militia cronies. He’s also discovered “remains of the confederacy” in what very much appears to be an old panic room in the house’s basement. Helen’s birthright bears the scars of slavery, as does Clifton Mansion itself.
Back in town, at the offices of People Powered, Helen’s operations chief Hazzie (Tina Canady) and staff supervisor Nadeen (Daniela Hernández-Fujigaki) have a lot on their plates. The org is downsizing, yet somehow they need to find a new assignment for Bill (Aaron Hancock), a possibly shady employee whose boyfriend Courtney (Dominic Gladden), a locksmith, has been recruited to make repairs in Helen’s basement. While on the job, Courtney is confronted by triggers of every sort, including an expert in gaslighting named Charlotte (also Tina Canady), a spectre who quotes Yoda, hates the world, and loves television. Charlotte has an agenda, and a plan. Everybody else in this tale seems to lack either one or the other, but that doesn’t stop them driving forward with great urgency.
Make no mistake, “Safe Space” is a comedy. Its racially charged leitmotif manifests more cheeky than preachy, à la “An Octoroon”. Still, the moral center – Charlotte, promising a “holy ghost riot” – is dead/serious. Her closing soliloquy is where playwright Thomas’ own voice is finally heard, unfiltered. He has a great deal to say. Tina Canady packs his words with punch-to-the-gut truth in her performance.
Much of the comic glue that binds the play together comes in the form of Ben Kleymeyer’s nimble direction. They inter-cuts scenes with silly dance numbers and cartoonish fight choreography (by Tegan Williams) and makes playful use of a “whatever’s lying around becomes the next prop” technique. The performance by Daniela Hernández-Fujigaki is the production’s other main source of comedy. Actually, all of the actors deliver moments of true comic chops, but it’s Hernández-Fujigaki whose earnest hilarity serves as constant propulsion here. She’s a newcomer to Baltimore, and one predicts she’ll be well known to audiences pretty soon.
Production elements of the piece feature a whole lot of “doing more with less”. The basement ceiling offers only tiny spaces for placement of lighting instruments, and sound playback is rather poor (a disservice to Meghan Stanton’s lush design). Lighting by Avi Sheehan is imaginatively augmented with lots and lots of flashlights, used by the actors themselves. It’s a cool workaround.
A few points are crucial here: First, because of the small audience setup, ticket availability will likely be a problem throughout the run. Don’t procrastinate. Also related to that setup and the low ceiling, be advised that only the front rows of chairs (a little less than half the capacity) offer unobstructed views; seating is neither tiered nor staggered, and anyone shorter than about 8 feet tall will miss a great deal from the second row. Finally, do allow a bit of extra time to find your way to the mansion if attending an evening performance. Lighting on the access roads is nearly nonexistent.
Running Time: 116 minutes without intermission.
Advisories: flashing lights, theatrical fog, firearm props, gunshot sounds.
Single Carrot Theatre’s production of “Safe Space” appears through February 23 at Clifton Mansion, 2701 Saint Lo Drive, Baltimore. For tickets call (443) 844-9253 or purchase online.