‘Roots’ ain’t made for walkin’

To say the scene was kooky would have been a large understatement. I sat in a row of mismatching, old wooden chairs; behind me, a Man with wisps of grey hair chaotically billowing from his head audibly mumbled words from a visibly aged book, as if he were performing. Intimidated by the thought of delving into the world of raw, nitty-gritty acting, my seat was strategically located to the side of a miniature stage, a slightly elevated wooden block on which the actress’ chair was placed atop a glass of water.

Written by Christina Anderson DRA ’11, the Yale Cabaret’s “Hollow Roots” is a solo show. This, partnered with the stage’s simplicity, had fueled my initial trepidation.

Essentially, “Hollow Roots” is about the importance of ethnicity and culture in shaping individual identity. Throughout the show, the playwright tries to prove that both of these things are inherently tied to the narratives of our lives. Fittingly, the Cabaret’s show is driven by the narrative.

The show’s only on-stage human presence, Sheria Irving DRA ’13, is portrayed as a young resident of a large city trying to rise in the mundane ranks of her day job. We don’t know much about her besides these and other trivial facts — she plays the cello and discovered the word “hate” at four years old. Since the show relies so heavily on her acting, even the slightest amount of dullness in the actress’ performance would have caused an immediate disconnect in the audience. Irving handles herself well under the pressure, however. Her ability to translate emotion is what keeps the audience engaged. Because the Cabaret’s black box is such a small venue, every audience member is able to establish direct eye contact with Irving, which is often borderline disconcerting. Her ability to make a hand gesture or a facial expression sincere, paired with the tangible proximity of her body, allows the audience to feel her every burst of outrage and every moment of despair.

At times, it is difficult to follow the character’s winding thoughts and relate them back to what the central theme appears to be. Not infrequently I felt my mind becoming bogged down as I tried to figure out what the deeper significance was behind some of the (only) character’s thoughts or passing remarks. Some of Anderson’s scenes do more to confuse the audience than reinforce the message, particularly one instance in which our lonely character describes a dream of hers. Set on a beach in Italy, she is going down a hill and spends about two minutes describing how she trips and dirties herself while still in her work clothes. At its best, this scene was thematically disconnected from the rest of the performance and offered no insight into the play’s ultimate purpose.

Overall, however, the show successfully gets it message across.

There are minimal stage props, background design and lighting — little can distract the audience from the actress’ portrayal of a woman in search of a “neutral narrative,” a story with no links to ethnicity or culture. “Hollow Roots” is a show solely about the message it is trying to send, and it does not employ gimmicks to try to get the audience to understand that message. If you are someone who believes that a show should be just that, an elaborate presentation of drama and action and glitter and dazzle, “Hollow Roots” is too heady for you. It’s something to think about the day after while drinking coffee in Blue State; it’s something to bring up to your roommate because you want to hear someone else’s opinion. But it requires your attention and may induce way more thinking than you need on a Friday or Saturday night.

“Hollow Roots: A Solo Work” is up at the Yale Cabaret through Saturday, Jan. 22.

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