Wednesday, February 27, 2019

171 (2018-2019): Review: RANDOM ACTS (seen February 26, 2018)

“Guardian Angels”

Onstage, Renata Hinrichs, playwright/actress/
dancer, looks about 40 in the simple, plaid, jumper-style dress (designed by Deshon Elem Delta) she wears in Random Acts. Actually, she’s in her mid-50s, since the autobiographical story she tells in her sweet, but not particularly newsworthy, one-woman memory play, is of being in first grade when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.

Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen,
Random Acts, first performed at the F.A.B. Women@tbg, and seen at the United Solo Theater Festival in 2014, is now at TBG on W. 36th Street, where Renata’s memories are acted out over the course of a brisk hour and 15 minutes. These consist mainly of her being a white girl encountering racial strife as a child in grade-school and later, in high school, and of life lessons learned along the way.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Hinrichs tells her tale on a bare stage backed only by a vertical flat of multicolored squares (designed by Chika Shimizu), with only a bench on which to now and then sit. In a program note, she declares that New York’s post-9/11 turmoil jogged her memories of Chicago’s civil rights disturbances following Dr. King’s death, leading to other recollections that she subsequently wrote down and performed.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Speaking to us both in her adult and childhood voices, this talented artist smoothly jumps from character to character, including her parents, her schoolmates, a boy she dated, and so on, altering her speech and body movements to do so. Occasionally, little Renata, an aspiring ballerina, bursts out dancing. In one bit, she performs in her room along with a recording of Julie Andrews, her idol, singing “The Sound of Music,” a choreographically hammy version of a little girl dreaming her heart out to her favorite song.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
As that number suggests, much of the Random Acts provides the nostalgic background for a recreation of Hinrichs’s early life as the daughter of a Lutheran minister and his prim and proper wife. Hinrichs’s account describes the events after the family moved in 1966 from Boston to Chicago, where her father, replacing a racist minister, was assigned to a white church on the South Side, very close to Ashland Avenue, a street dividing white and black neighborhoods, rife with racial tensions.

Her father is an idealistic liberal of great integrity whose resistance to racism and “God loves everybody” philosophy alienates some congregants, as when people walk out when a black baby is baptized. Her mother is a woman tensely aware of the need to keep her family and home under spic and span control, the kind who constantly warns Renata to behave or get “the living daylights” beat out of her.

But, once she’s enrolled in public school, even in kindergarten, little Renata can’t avoid being bullied by resentful black kids. One painful incident is resolved by the intercession of an older black boy whose identity she never learns. When she tells her dad about it, he comforts her, not only by trying to explain why people are biased against people of other colors, but by calling the boy a “guardian angel,” such as we all have in times of need.
Renata Hinrichs. Photo: Mitch Traphagen.
Such theological platitudes may not resolve questions like why Dr. King is later murdered, but, as an explanation for the influence of random acts of kindness, it nonetheless remains important to Renata.

Hinrichs also describes the trauma of the racial violence that erupted in Chicago following Dr. King’s death, which seared her for life. Nonetheless, she remained so colorblind that, in 1978, she appears not to have realized the potential for trouble in her relationship with Willy, the captain of her high school football team and editor of the school paper.

When she went to pick him up at his home for their Homecoming Dance date, his mother’s nasty, “Willy, there’s some white girl here for you,” was never to be forgotten. Nor was Willy’s own rudeness toward her that night; his bad behavior needn’t be interpreted through a racial filter but it does allow for a touching moment later in Renata’s life when Facebook appears on the scene, providing a nice touch of sentiment that displays the actress’s emotional depth.

Director Jessi D. Hill serves the play well, both in her staging, which makes good use of the small space, and by her incorporation of a rather extensive sound design (by Matt Otto), using pop (“Downtown,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” etc.), and church music, and considerably varied lighting design by Daisy Long.

Perhaps the most interesting slant the material takes is its concern with a white girl being on the receiving end of racist attitudes, and of a child’s loss of innocence but not her faith in human goodness. Random Acts raises valid issues, and nicely captures Hinrichs’s recall of a specific time and place. As drama, though, it’s rather thin, like the threads of a spider web, lovely to look at but so fragile it doesn’t take much effort for it to crumble.

The Barrow Group
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through March 2