American linguist Einar Haugen coined the term “code-switching” in 1954, to describe “the mixing of languages or dialects across different ethnic or racial demographics.” A later work by William Gudykunst describes the practice as serving “several functions: to mask fluency and memory in a second language, go between formal and informal conversation, exert power over another, and align and unify among familiar groups”. As a common behavior among people of color, it was discussed with eloquence by W.E.B. Dubois as early as 1903: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” The practice, while exhausting to perform, is seen by many Black Americans as a necessary evil. It can make one’s voice heard in a political setting, make one’s work seen in a professional setting, and promote one’s survival during an encounter with law enforcement.
…a hilarious new satire…ready to entertain as well as to enlighten…a tight, solid ensemble of six actors…wonderful…
On its face, this serious topic might not sound like fertile ground for comedy. But “The Code Switch,” a hilarious new satire written and directed by Shakill Jamal, is ready to entertain as well as to enlighten. Sisters Freehold, a new-ish independent producing company led by Makeima Freeland and Ann Turiano, have assembled a tight, solid ensemble of six actors who navigate a smorgasbord of comic sketches and choreographed movement. There are about a dozen sections to the 90-minute offering, and each performance is accompanied by a post-show talkback. Audience involvement doesn’t end there, as two of the sketches feature an audience vote to determine an important plot element using a format that reminds one of eating at a Brazilian steakhouse. In devising the sketches and the movement sections, Jamal is aided by associate director Kateri and creative consultant Raven Lorraine.
The piece opens with a sketch about childhood bullying in which poor little Timmy is eventually disemboweled. Timmy is a puppet and his stuffed-felt innards are removed with gleeful rage. Michael Changwe and Griffin DeLisle work the puppets. Next is a commercial for the pharmaceutical “Lobotomol” in which Jae Jones and Jess Rivera give hilarious testimonials about this new drug’s efficacy. Ask your doctor if Lobotomol is right for you. On to documentary with “Nature, Or Is It?” Jones is a Steve Irwin-type here, confronted by Sha-Nel Henderson appearing as a coral snake. Arguments ensue and become quite heightened until—ding!—a sort of code switch god appears, voiced by ReginaGinaG, who asks the audience to vote on a resolution. The projected character is one of Chris Uehlinger’s many design contributions, and it comes a lot like Frank Zappa’s idea of the Central Scrutinizer. “Mother Tongue” follows in which the ensemble take turns fielding cell phone calls from their mothers while packed into a crowded subway car. Rivera turns in an anguished performance, showing that there’s more than just language filling the distances between people. Hana Clarice then joins Rivera for “The Woke Friend,” followed by “Captain Woke and his Black Queen” which is an extremely heightened water cooler setup where DeLisle receives advice from Changwe and Henderson about how he should educate his biracial daughter. The finale is “The Codeswitch Olympics” in which Jones must alternate phone conversations in rapid succession among his boss, his buddy, his grandmother, his girlfriend, and the power company. He has a different calisthenic routine to go with a different vocal manner for each of these. Henderson, in gold lame tails, is the ringmaster and calls play by play. Eventually, there’s a call-waiting SNAFU which, even though one sees it coming from a block away, is still hilarious.
All of these wonderful sketches are connected by bits of flocked movement developed by Jamal and Kateri. Accompanying these is an evocative and lovely sound design by composer Navid Azeez. Bruce Kapplin’s set is a terrific installation, particularly for a theater where everything must be hand carried up three flights of stairs. Kitt Crescenzo’s costumes are clever and thoughtful. Each of the actors is in a quasi-robotic base, including a cross-body bag which hosts control knobs and an indicator light. Stage management is by Shea Winpigler. The uncredited lighting design and puppets are first rate.
For more background information about the production, check out Susan Brall’s “A Quick 5” interview wirth the playwright/director here.
Running Time: One hour and 29 minutes with no intermission.
Advisories: Profanity, including use of the “n” word.
“The Code Switch” runs through July 30, 2023 at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets are available online. Face masks are optional.