Kerry Gudjohnsen (Vivian), Richard Aiello (Doug), Desiree Rogers (Hannah)
The year is 1965. The place is small town Indiana. During a thunderstorm and with a tornado threatening, middle-aged, white, married couple Doug and Vivian are driving home from church. Seeing an already drenched, middle-aged, black woman at a bus stop, they give her a ride and offer that she join them in their basement until the violent storm passes. Revelation often finds fertile ground in confined space, and many secrets are unearthed as the three weather the storm. We learn the back stories that brought the characters to this juncture and witness the clashes of the moment in Jan Probst’s insightful drama, cleverly set in an earlier era, but one that is well-known today.
This tidy 75-minute play covers an uncommonly wide swath of issues – notably the effects of secrets and local myths, often riddled with falsehoods, that define perceptions about us and our community. But in addition to that, the play deals with racism; sexism, including situations that foreshadowed the MeToo movement; survival; measuring against others rather than valuing what we have; sibling rivalry; gender roles; marital challenges; pacifism and war; time-anchored mores; religion versus belief in God; and redemption – among others. Many of these could be the nexus for digging into this play, but the racial matters particularly tie into events of the current moment in time. The following is as much essay that relates to the play as it is a review.
Doug, is a plain guy who does pretty well as an insurance salesman, but who, in his own words, sells products to people who don’t need them. His self-loathing derives from a life-long parade of missed opportunities to do what his peers have done, and he even feels that as a marital catch he was consolation prize for Vivian, played with earnestness and resignation by Kerry Gudjohnsen. Doug does consider himself a good person, yet I disliked him almost from the outset, which is a sign of the effective characterization that the playwright has penned and that Richard Aiello acts.
The black woman, Hannah, displays a reserved, confident dignity and that very special trait that many black people develop – to deal with insults from whites with great equanimity. Doug asks her what she was doing in this neighborhood on a Sunday, noting that maids don’t work on Sundays, and blacks don’t live in this part of town. He then assumes she is on welfare and asks what kind of work she does. The microaggressions in this line of questioning comport with his reality and seem innocent enough and natural to him. He follows up by asserting that blacks should be appreciative for the benefits that they have in this country, even if they are second-class citizens. In time, Hanna will show that despite her status, she is more than Doug’s match by many measures. Also relevant is that Doug’s view toward white women is condescending as well, reflecting the thinking of patriarchal society.
Even though people turn out differently, the time and place that one lives strongly influences their attitudes. My dislike of Doug comes partly from my knowing this person who lacks understanding beyond his own frame of reference and my own repudiation of attitudes from my teenage years. Growing up in an all-white suburb of Dallas, I thought many of the same thoughts, simply out of lack of exposure and ignorance. Coincidentally, it was around 1965 that my view of the world started to expand, and I embraced inclusion.
“Bird on a Tree Branch” engages on many levels. We find festering resentments and unrealized potential, because people, even couples, remain uninformed and fail to communicate. In the play, we witness some character evolution and wonder particularly with Doug, what kind of person he would become later in life.
Thanks in part to the font of knowledge called Wikipedia and ubiquitous social media that archives every stupid message that every thoughtless person has shared on the Internet, we have entered an era of “gotchas.” For example, the San Francisco School Board decided to eliminate 44 historical figures from school names, largely because of revealed racial bigotry. While racist acts of a few of these figures were egregious, most of them were products of, if not progressive for, their times. Many were more than redeemed by subsequent acts, to wit, Abraham Lincoln, who the Board wants to delist (Washington and Jefferson as well)!
Ironically, a current black member of the Board is under fire for postings she made five years ago which were critical of Asians. So is this a good time to roll out that old adage about “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Some of her criticisms were borne out by facts, and she has since worked on issues that are helpful to Asians. So, with her, Doug, and millions of others, do we evaluate them by current standards or in the context of their environment? If they erred but changed, do we honor their redemption?
The play is produced in Zoom. The three principal actors play their individual parts well. Desiree Rogers as Hannah is particularly strong as she navigates the boundary of assertiveness without wanting to alienate her hosts under the circumstances. In some ways, this is an ideal play for Zoom because of the small cast and contained setting. Director Julie Dimas-Lockfeld opens up the space with a couple of outdoor video bits, including flashbacks to 1942. Ambient sound occurs throughout along with occasional major storm sounds.
Nonetheless, the bulk of the production is in talking-head format, so that it comes across as a well-rehearsed reading. Characters are mostly stationary and look into the camera rather than at one another, so that individual performances don’t add up to the desired theatrical experience. Yet, this is a worthy play, and hopefully as actors, creatives, and techs get Covid inoculations, we will see more natural filming of this and other plays (see my review on [hieroglyph] for a contrast). For the time being, if you accept it for what it is, this rendering is worthwhile.
“Bird on a Tree Branch,” a world premiere play by Jan Probst, is produced by Phoenix Arts Association Theatre and is available on streaming at YouTube through March 31, 2021.
Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle