“Animals” is the third play of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s season recorded as an audio book. It is actually the first that make me realize how much I missed live theater at Williamstown this summer.
Don’t get me wrong. The first two productions, “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Photograph 51” are worthwhile and enjoyable. But this world-premiere by Stacy Osei-Kuffour is special. It’s a biting comedy-drama concerning two interracial couples. It’s not only funny, it’s revealing.
“Animals” is a fierce look at the dilemma of a Black person navigating the cultural world of Whites. It’s a play for this time as it is filled with insight on race and cultural identity. But it’s neither a lecture nor a social manifesto. “Animals” is a play about love – romantic love of love of self. It says you cannot love another until you accept yourself.
Playwright Osei-Kuffour accomplishes her smart, funny and human examination of many complex human and social problems by examining the subliminal issues that exist in complicated relationships.
Henry is a white forty-something male who has been in a relationship with Lydia, a 30-year-old African-American woman, for thirteen years. He finally proposes marriage to her, but it’s the wrong day. It’s the night her best friend Jason is bringing a girlfriend to their annual dinner. It’s the 15th anniversary of the day that the two friends met.
Jason is also African-American, who now calls himself Yaw after a trip to Africa. He is a professor at NYU and shows up with a 20-year old white female philosophy student who is enthralled with Yaw.
The situation is awkward. There’s an obvious sexual tension between Yaw and Lydia, while Henry is just as obviously jealous about Yaw. Lydia needs Jason/Yaw in her life because he keeps her grounded to her street-kid roots. It is those roots which she relies on to define herself.
Yaw is her opposite. He makes a conspicuous effort to embrace his African heritage while relishing the acceptance he finds in being part of a White culture. Being around Lydia reminds him of his actual roots as a poor African-American growing up in the Washington Heights section of New York City.
Both Henry and Yaw’s young date, Colleen, are confused pawns in the battle between Lydia and Yaw. Heartbreaking conflict enters the play because Henry truly loves Lydia and her behavior towards him makes it seem his love is not reciprocated. Indeed, it is suggested she’s with him only because he offers a pathway of acceptance in the world of Whites.
In such a powder keg situation an explosion is unavoidable. When it arrives, hard truths are exposed, and decisions must be made. Those decisions are painful yet loving.
“Animals” is wonderfully performed on the Audio presentation and the 90 minutes fly by. Performances are about perfect, as each actor draws a clear image of the character they portray.
Director Whitney White is wonderful at building tension by teasing the subtext in the relationships before they are revealed. More important, once there is a release of tension, the mood retreats rather than disappears. When the conflicts return, the drama is heightened without seeming false or dishonest. This is a play filled with surprises that somehow feel inevitable.
“Animals” is a fascinating play to hear, but I am certain that it will be even better on stage. I look forward to seeing it live.
“Animals” is part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival 2020 season on Audio. For information go to wtfestival.org or call 413- 458-3200.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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