The Reverend’s Calling

The eta Creative Arts Foundation’s website introduces “Birthright” as a play about  “surviving the complexities of love.” It may be enough to entice, but it does not quite capture the true entertainment of eta’s newest mainstage show. Director Vaun Monroe has done an excellent job with Jackie Alexander’s play, creating a psychologically pervasive exploration of the history of an upstanding black preacher, Reverend Etienne.

As soon as the house lights go down, the actors begin interacting with the audience. Dion Strowhorn, playing the haunted Reverend Etienne, walks out into a pool of light and preaches directly to the audience, “his church.” A light projects a beautiful stained-glass pane on Strowhorn as he calls and beckons the crowd, receiving a chorus of “amens” from his enraptured congregation. From the opening scene, it is clear that “Birthright” has achieved what many other plays can only strive for–inclusiveness.

The narrative follows the Reverend Etienne in his marriage to a lovely woman and his strong relationship with his brother, Billy. All is well until rumors begin to fly about Etienne’s interests in Michelle, a young girl living under the same roof as Billy. Passions continue to escalate, culminating in the revelation that, one way or another, the reverend will have to be accountable to himself and to his past.

Strowhorn effectively carries off the part of the reverend, who is not only interested in maintaining power within his community but also in preserving his own self-worth as his past is painfully brought to light. The reverend develops complex relationships with other characters through his ability to vacillate between moral counselor and strained husband who is himself in need of counsel. This is drawn out in the interactions between the two pairs of siblings at the center of the plot: Reverend Etienne and Billy, brothers in search of true manhood, and Monique and Michelle, sisters still recovering from betrayal. These relationships never fail to demonstrate the closeness and confrontation of home life, teased out in discordant domestic scenes. Christina Harper as Michelle delivers a memorable performance, blending silken seduction with palpable psychological deterioration. It seems appropriate that, given the strength of her acting, this Columbia College student is last to take a bow after the show, even though she is not billed as the main character.

A simple, flat set, color-coded with easily interpreted symbolism and simple mood lighting serve as a background for the action. The technical design of the show comes to the foreground in only a few, startling instances. For instance, in order to convey a sense of despair, a moody R&B song suddenly permeates the theater while amber spotlights accentuate the scene, furthering the misery already perfectly conveyed by Harper’s acting abilities. Nearly all transitions are punctuated with whimsical song choices, pulling the audience away from a drama of the scene and into the realm of sing-along.

“Birthright” communicates more than family drama: it underscores the pivotal role of black women as leaders of the family. In a rehearsal, Monroe praised their indomitable spirit in the face of adversity and turmoil. Dispensing an acting tip that had resonance beyond the play, Monroe advised his actors, “It takes strength to be vulnerable.”

eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S South Chicago Ave. Through May 8. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm. $10 Thursday, $30 Friday-Sunday.