“The Joy That Carries You” flips from one family story to another, from chosen family to birth family, from unspoken expectations to heart-warming acceptance, from cringe-worthy attempts to connect to moments of sincere empathy and openness. At the center of the story are Alaia and Shiri, a young, interracial (African-American, Ashkenazi Jewish American) couple living together in New York City. Alaia, played by Billie Krishawn, is confident and energetic, or so it seems. With each spoken-word poetry-filled monologue, Alaia shows the audience glimpses into her inner world, starting with a gorgeous exploration of the meaning of joy, and ending with a relatable description of grief and all its complexities. Meanwhile, Shiri, played by Dani Stoller, exuberates anxiety-filled mannerisms and stubborn banter from the opening scene. They tiptoe around and away from difficult conversations until tragedy forces them to confront their fears, individually and together as a couple.
…a brilliant exploration of the nuances and complexities of what it means to fully be yourself in a multitude of relationships.
The first hurdle comes when Shiri introduces Alaia to her father, Marin (Michael Russotto), and stepmother, Nancy (Susan Rome), over Thanksgiving. While Shiri is embarrassed and frustrated by each faux-pas prediction coming true—from the infamous “where are you really from” question to showing off Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Alaia envies her partner’s family dynamic. “I wish I could have this in them, but that would cost me you.”
Alaia gets that chance to reconnect with her family and smooth over a ten-year separation. Unfortunately, the reunion comes with a life-altering loss, and tense, but necessary conversations with her big brother, Ezekiel (Bru Ajueyitsi), Ma (Lolita Marie), and stepfather, Beau (James J. Johnson).
The dialogue ebbs and flows like the ocean. Some scenes are fluid, calm, and serene. Others “come for the jugular” or include “small talk with accidental daggers.” Between the two are moments of pure comedic gold, smooth like the ice cream Martin offers Alaia and the coffee Shiri offers Ezekiel.
Co-playwrights Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller started working on the idea for “The Joy That Carries You” back in 2020. Two-and-a-half years later, not much in the world has changed. While the ending may feel a little too good to be true, it also provides some hope for a reality many wish to see more of these days—one in which love prevails, relationships deepen, and understanding is sought out—instead of cast away.
From the moment you step in the theater, you notice the amount of detail that went into showcasing the differences and weaving together the similarities between Shiri’s and Alaia’s stories. Seating is on either side of the stage, providing a unique element of interaction, not only with the actors and actresses, but fellow audience members across the way. Scenic designer, Misha Kachman, made great use of the entrances and exits to help distinguish one living room or kitchen scene from the next. Additionally, the use of picture frames above the set, shifting from one family to another, really sets the mood.
From the first word spoken, lighting designer, Alberto Segarra, makes use of panels on either side of the stage, timing flashes of bright colors to emotions, spoken or left unsaid. Spotlights also helped highlight powerful monologues and scene changes. Sound designer Matthew Nielson’s use of a beating heart and increasing text notification pings honed in on one particularly earth-shattering moment for Alaia.
“The Joy That Carries You” is a brilliant exploration of the nuances and complexities of what it means to fully be yourself in a multitude of relationships. It demonstrates the courage and strength it takes to find and nourish the relationships that not only bring you joy, but lead you to learning about who you are as a person.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Contains some profanity. This show is recommended for audiences 13 and over.
“The Joy That Carries You” runs through June 12, 2022. Tickets are available here or by calling 301-924-3400. Please note, due to proximity to the actors, Only Theatre Center requires proof of vaccination and masks for this show.