Review: ‘Black Box Black Blocks’ at Ernst Lab Theatre

Jun. 24, 2011 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

UH-Manoa’s annual “Black Box Black Blocks” series is back for its third year — but on a such a reduced scale that the survival of the program seems in question. Conceived in 2009 as a summer showcase for new playwrights, directors, actors, dancers and choreographers, it opened last night with a program that consists of four dance numbers and a single short dramatic piece.

Courtesy photo.

A second dramatic piece, a monologue performed by local theater veteran D. Tafa‘i Silipa, will be added to the program tonight and included for the rest of the run.

The program is not that only thing that is “downsized” compared to years past. The opening night audience consisted of eight people — and that’s counting two theater staffers and this reviewer!

The single dramatic piece, director Maseeh Ganjali’s adaption of playwright Rosina Favors’ “To Do Battle,” was reminiscent of the well-written plays of the two previous “BBBB” anthologies — a short but engaging vignette about three women and an unintended pregnancy. At five months, the pregnant woman still has options — to do “nothing” (have the baby), or do “something” (have an abortion). She wants her friends to make the decision for her. They refuse to advocate either course of action, and appear to resent her interjecting the issue of her pregnancy into their game of “Battleship.”

Favors’ simple slice-of-life story works well in getting the audience involved in the situation, but it is noteworthy for two other reasons. It shows that Phoebe Hwang, the choreographer and dancer in two of the four dance pieces, can also act and create a character. It is also a noteworthy platform for Yan Ma and Joy Higashino who give memorable performances as the pregnant woman’s unsympathetic “friends.” One points out that “We were not there when you made the baby” and adds bluntly that “You shouldn’t have f—ed.” The other comments sweetly that contraception is 99% effective — implying that the woman got pregnant because she didn’t take any precautions to prevent it.

The four dance numbers are the usual mixed bag of choreographed movement that represents the other side of the “BBBB” showcase concept. “Sideways,” performed by choreographer/dancer Hwang to the Citizen Cope hit of that name, features her impressive acrobatic skills in dramatic style as she acts out what appears to be a story of alienation and frustration.

In “The Throne,” choreographed by Becky McGarvey, a woman mistreats a larger woman, rejects her affectionate overtures and uses her as a beast of burden while trying to maintain control of the titular throne.

Hwang partners with violinist Jason Wong in choreographing and performing “Imagine” — an enigmatic number performed to a vintage recording of “Deep Purple.” The violin is a nice touch.

Courtesy photo.

In the final dance number, “Sacada,” choreographer/dancers Jackie Okimoto and Daniel Sakimura demonstrate a fluid style of Argentine Tango.

Followers of the “Black Box Black Blocks” series know that the playwrights and choreographers are required to create stories or dance numbers that can be performed on a bare stage (the “black box”) but which must incorporate three black theater cubes (the “black blocks”). The “black blocks” aren’t getting as much use this year as they did in 2009 and 2010.

They’re used most fully in McGarvey’s piece as dancers Shani Noriko Jones and Caitlin Flores move them around the bare stage to reconfigure the “throne” in various configurations. Hwang uses them as platforms for some of her show-stopping acrobatic maneuvers in “Sideways.”

Beyond that, they serve as chairs and the game board in “To Do Battle,” and are peripherial to the choreographed movement in “Imagine.’

“Sacada” opens with Okimoto sitting on one of the blocks. From the time she stands up and starts dancing with Sakimura they have no role in the number at all. It could just as easily start with Okimoto standing — but that would be breaking the format.

More troubling is the fact that this year’s “Black Box Black Blocks” anthology is but a shadow of its predecessors. In 2009 there were enough new works — short stories by five playwrights and dance numbers from three choreographers — to require an intermission. This year the entire program runs less than an hour and almost all the playwrights, choreographers and performers are returnees: playwright Favors, director Ganjali, choreographer/dancer Hwang, choreographer McGarvey, choreographer/dancer Okimoto and choreographer/dancer Wong.

Yan Ma and Joy Higashino are welcome new faces who should move on to larger roles in Lab Theatre and Kennedy Main Stage productions, but based on the surprisingly small number of new works, and the overwhelming presences of returnees, an infusion of new participants — new playwrights, directors, actors, dancers and choreographers — is needed if “BBBB” is going to survive as a summer showcase of new talent at the UH-Manoa.

‘Black Box Black Blocks 2011′

» Where: Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa
» When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 25 and Saturday, June 26; also 2 p.m. Sunday, June 27
» Cost: $5 (cash only)
» Info: http://blackboxblackblocks.wordpress.com

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