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Review

Urbanite Theatre's 'Oak' gets scary, Southern style

Terry Guest's premiere play summons the unquiet ghost of slavery.


Trezure B. Coles stars as Pickle in Urbanite Theatre's world premiere of Terry Guest's "Oak."
Trezure B. Coles stars as Pickle in Urbanite Theatre's world premiere of Terry Guest's "Oak."
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
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Terry Guest’s “Oak” has just premiered at Urbanite Theatre. His new play is philosophical, political, historical, metaphorical, hilarious and allegorical. Above all, it’s a scary ghost story. That story transpires with the double vision of magical realism.

On the realistic level, the setting is a mythical backwoods town named Oak in contemporary Georgia. The tale revolves around an African-American family. Peaches (DeAnna Wright) is the matriarch. Although she’s still a young woman, motherhood defines (and confines) her. It’s been that way since she had her first child at age 16. 

Instead of following her Hollywood dreams, Peaches got a backbreaking job at a burger joint — and still works there. Her daughter Pickle (Trezure B. Coles) is now 16 years old. The kid’s tough but not rebellious. Big Man (William Rose II) is Peaches’ nine-year-old son. He’s still a kid, but he acts big. Suga (Jaeda LaVonne) is their first cousin — not so tough, but imaginative.

“Oak” dives into magical depths at the start — with Pickle and Big Man telling competing versions of the same ghost story. “Odella” is the ghost in question. Urban legend has it that — back in the bad old days of slavery — Odella had a chance to escape, but left her baby girl behind. She ran for her life — and fell to her death in a creek.

It’s been called “Odella Creek” ever since; and her unquiet spirit resides within. Year after year, Odella drags unwary Black teens and children into her watery realm as substitutes for her own lost child. (Once kids see her red eyes, they’re goners.) So the story goes. 

Coincidentally, the town has a yearly “Snatching Season” when young African-Americans go missing. It’s that time of year when Pickle and Big Man relate their ghost story. When their cousin Suga vanishes, the kids decide it isn’t fiction. 

Pickle has seen the specter’s crimson eyes and figures she’s next. She seeks out a crazy old woman who somehow resisted Odella’s hypnotic spell. Pickle learns her spell-breaking secret. Does it save her? Don’t ask me. The playwright keeps that card close to his chest right up the end. That’s the hand he wants to play; I won’t spoil it.

Guest’s dialogue sizzles, but “Oak” isn’t all talk. There’s lots of action, and clever bits of business, including a seriously creepy shadow-puppet show. Director Mikael Burke latches on to the play’s relentless forward momentum. The result is a pure adrenaline rush.

The shape-shifting actors do an excellent job with the main characters, and also morph into ghosts and social outcasts, as the play requires. Wright’s Peaches has an exhausted, flat affect — as if her dead-end job squeezed her like a damp rag until her life-force was drained. But there’s no poor-me attitude. Her character never complains. She does what she has to do right now. And then does the next thing. 

Coles’ portrayal of Pickle is beautifully expressive. Her character can shout. But there are times (especially around her mother) when she keeps her thoughts to herself. With eye-rollings, shrugs and body language, Coles deftly conveys her Pickle's inner life. 

Rose’s Big Man is another sharp portrayal. He’s an adult actor, not nine years old. But he moves, reacts and talks like a kid — convincingly. LaVonne’s Suga gets only a few scenes, but she makes the most of them. She’s the first to see Odella’s red eyes. With very few words, she portrays her haunted, hunted inner life. She knows she’s prey and it’s driving her nuts.

Urbanite’s backstage talent does a killer job bringing Guest’s creep-show to life. Frank Chavez’ proscenium-arch set is a first for this black-box theater. You know there’s nothing behind that arch. This is the theater of the mind; the imaginary world-building is up to you. Chavez underscores this make-believe with a forest of cut-out oak trees (which the actors move around).

Alex Pinchin’s lighting is a cinematic horror show. It’s moody and murky, until strange (or stranger) things emerge. The actors aren’t lost. Pinchin keeps their expressions illuminated despite the gloom. 

Brian Grimm delivers the scary sounds behind this sight. These include sound trucks warning of “Snatching Season,” the ghost’s repetitious lullaby and suitable jump scares. 

Adrienne Pitts’ costumes evoke the working-class vibe of a hard-luck Georgia town. It’s never seen any better days; it’s always been a trap for folks who don’t get out. 

Along with directing, Burke also designed, created and filmed the entire puppet-show-from-hell scene. His child-like designs evoke a horrific sense of innocence lost. Graffiti by Kaitlin Kelly adds to the lurking fear.

It adds up to one wild ride. You’ll alternate between “Ha-ha” and “Ahhhh.” That horror-humor duality is baked into the playwright’s script. Guest’s magical-realist mystery trip works on both levels.

On the human plane, the play’s characters are sympathetic and three-dimensional. On the ethereal realm, Guest's ghost story kept me on the edge of my seat. The playwright takes a scary note from “Jaws” and takes his sweet time putting the Big Bad on stage. (What you don’t see can scare you.) 

“Oak” tells a great story, both magically and realistically. Until the final scenes, the play’s natural and supernatural elements all weave together. But they come apart at the ending.

Without giving it away, the climax is an allegorical response to tragic Black experience. (Survivors should soldier on and not look back.) Fair enough. But that tough-minded ending undercuts the war between good and evil the ghost story’s led you to expect. I could say more. For now, let’s just say I didn’t like it.

But I don’t like a few of Stephen King’s endings, so take that as you will.

Ending aside, Guest’s philosophical, political, historical, metaphorical, allegorical, hilarious, horrifying ghost story is one of the best plays I’ve seen this season. I’m haunted by it still. But don’t be afraid. See it anyway.


 

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