James Ijames is having a very good year, namely, as he’s experiencing a much-heralded Broadway run with his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-nominated play “Fat Ham.” (He just won the Outer Circle Critic’s John Gassner Award for New American Play). He was also commissioned by Studio Theatre back in 2019 and the resulting play, “Good Bones,” is having its world premiere this year. While a comedy at heart, the play tackles some pretty heavy topics, such as what constitutes community, police brutality, and controversies surrounding gentrification, among others. The play certainly leaves you with a lot to ponder, not to mention, a list of unanswered (and given our current climate, seemingly unanswerable) “whys.”
…a powerful show with themes and messages that refuse to just ‘play nice.’ It’s real, at times it’s raw, and it’s definitely going to get you thinking.
Travis and Aisha are having their home renovated. An affluent couple, relatively speaking, they have certain standards, they expect certain things from their home and their neighborhood. The neighborhood in question is in a section of an unnamed city that once upon a time would not have been an area that lived up to the couple’s expectations. Herein lies the inner (and outwardly manifested) struggles faced by not only the couple but also their contractor Earl who clings with an unwavering determination to the vestiges of his beloved community.
What does it mean to go away, “make good,” and then return to the neighborhood where you once were a very different, humbler version of yourself? Is wanting your home a certain way, wanting a certain style of crown molding, and insisting on a certain noise level after hours, indicative of the kind of change that means you’ve lost the essence of your former self? These are questions that Ijames asks, questions that don’t seem to have clear-cut answers. That Travis and Aisha continuously wonder “are we good people?” sets the tone for an exploration of relationships between who we are and who we become, between the past and present, between ghosts (yes, a ghost or two does make an appearance), and reality.
Directed by Psalmayene 24, “Good Bones” is definitely not short on perspective. That is perhaps what makes this production one that transcends a typical kitchen sink drama and becomes instead an examination of deeply philosophical and sociological questions that demand the audience’s implicit engagement—an engagement that anyone watching this play is going to be all too eager to provide.
Psalmayene’s direction compassionately guides participants through the various trials and challenges that are to be faced in this particular iteration of limbo: a house in the midst of a remodel. While symbolically the journey is one of home and neighborhood renovation, more urgently, it is about the renovation of one’s own spirit. The director, as any skilled guide, possesses a light hand with a heavily entertaining theatrical touch.
The four actors at the center of this production are all playing characters who happen to be consumed with their own life paths but also with how those paths intersect with people they meet along the way. As Aisha, Cara Ricketts exhibits some burgeoning star power here. She deftly carries theatergoers right along with her as she fluctuates between wanting to belong to her former world and needing to adapt to the reality of who she is now. Joel Ashur as Travis seems deceptively oblivious and that is what’s so ironically likable about the character. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Ashur gets to trot out some killer dance moves. Johnny Ramey is riveting as Earl. It is an intense performance but fully fleshed out by Earl’s more human and even more humorous moments. Rounding out the ensemble cast is Deidre Staples as the delightfully defiant Carmen, Earl’s younger sister. Her brashness and spontaneity are comic gold.
The set by designer Misha Kachman works exceedingly well both in a practical context and also a more ethereal one—as mentioned, there are some ghosts at work “behind the scenes.” Of course, the implied lavishness of this kitchen set is also an effective visual representation of the various characters’ inner uncertainties. The production often leans heavily on lighting by William K. D’Eugenio and sound design by Megumi Katayama—to highly pleasing effect. The costumes by Molenda Kulemeka do a wonderful job of further depicting who the characters are and, consequently, what they’re striving for. Good Bones is a powerful show with themes and messages that refuse to just “play nice.” It’s real, at times it’s raw, and it’s definitely going to get you thinking.
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“Good Bones” runs through June 18, 2023 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at 202.332.3300 or go online. Masks are recommended.