DC area theatre is alive and well! That was my initial reaction after watching a performance of The Essential Theatre’s Washington DC’s premiere of “Dissonance,” presented by their Women’s Works Program. As I’m relatively new to the area, this was my first time attending a play put on by Essential. I can only say that with such an emotional powerhouse of a production as “Dissonance” proved to be, I cannot wait to see more. This play lands within my top three for the season. It has shaken out to be an incredible theatrical season with some truly heavy hitters, which goes to show that smaller companies with more intimate and personal stories to tell very often do punch well above their weight class.
…an emotional powerhouse of a production…This play lands within my top three for the season…riveting…You don’t want to miss this one.
On its surface, “Dissonance” is a seemingly simple story: two women—one Black, one White—partner up to open a coffee shop, a long-held dream of theirs. Best friends since grad school, the duo have a shared vision of what their coffee shop will represent, but they also have individual lines that they draw in the sand of this partnership—and herein is where the true complexity and drama of the play lies. Upon crossing those lines, can you ever really come back?
Much of the piece comes down to discussions of race, or as Angela explains, the kinds of conversations she always just figured it would be too difficult to have—the reason she’s stuck to “easy” themes for the past twenty years. The entirety of the play takes place in their new café as the ladies are cleaning and busily prepping for the grand opening. A couple of surprise revelations, however, and the friendly banter surrounding potential croissant flavors and whether or not to keep the exposed brick becomes quite intense. At some points, their conversation—rather, heated argument—is actually pretty difficult to listen to, but it’s also impossible not to watch. This play makes the viewer an eager voyeur and you can’t look away. You can’t avert your eyes from the interaction between two women who could potentially be headed for an explosive end to a decade’s long friendship. Or, will they somehow be able to find a way to move on from the brutal truths revealed and accusations hurled?
Highly taboo topics most would gloss over and just move on take center stage in this production, and that is precisely what makes it so absolutely riveting. The women touch upon everything from what is meant by the phrase “driving while Black” to George Floyd’s murder to the perceptions attached to White women dating Black men. They hold nothing back. This really is a roll up your sleeves, dig in for the long haul, and show the whole of your heart moment for both of the actors—and they deliver tenfold.
In terms of production values and plot, “Dissonance” keeps it pretty simple, leaving all of the focus on the dialogue and deep emotional stakes inherent in the conversation. What an incredible job Marci J. Duncan (Angela) and Kerry Sandell (Lauren) do in terms of sustaining the intensity for the duration of this performance. They wholly embody these characters. You believe in their friendship. You also get lost in the spiral of anger, sadness, hurt, and pathos in which they quickly find themselves upon tackling those previously “off the table” topics. There is a sort of symphonic map to follow here, as they weave their way in and out of the various movements, both the highs and the lows.
Duncan’s raw emotionality and often starkly confessional moments are perfectly counterpointed by Sandell’s naiveté and heartfelt attempts at trying to truly understand what her friend might be going through—though the character of Lauren has also experienced some rollercoaster-ish ups and downs of her own. This is also fundamentally a play about our inability to sometimes see past our own “stuff” and thereby genuinely empathize with those around us.
That Duncan wrote the play in collaboration with Sandell is perhaps one of the best parts of the experience, and probably among the numerous reasons why the delivery is so powerfully affecting. I am a fan.
James Webb’s direction is subtle where it needs to be and also surprisingly explosive inasmuch as he lets the women and their words fully embody the spotlight. There is an almost musical sensibility at work in the direction. The set design by Ruben Arana is both understated and hopeful—the perfect backdrop against which to allow the events of this play to transpire. This is a timely, topical, and most importantly, soulfully thought-provoking play that takes on some monumental issues while holding very little back. You don’t want to miss this one.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains adult themes, including sensitive discussions about race and descriptions of racism. Recommended for audiences over 12 years of age.
“Dissonance” runs through June 11, 2023, presented by The Essential Theatre at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd SE, Washington DC, 20020. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are encouraged and welcomed.