Theater review: 'Tether' by Julie Taiwo Oni

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 7:57 PM

A rare angle on race is the subject of "Tether," a new two-character drama now being presented by the Doorway Arts Ensemble. The play is about two sisters: twin girls, different races.

Apparently it happens, and though that is not precisely playwright Julie Taiwo Oni's situation, it's close (Oni is a twin child born of mixed-race parents). That lineage goes some way toward explaining the easy authority of this stylized play, with its fragmented sentences and sisters who finish each other's thoughts. Credit the rest to the detail-rich acting of Gwen Grastorf (as Lach, the white girl) and Jade Wheeler (as Lam, Lach's black twin).

Oni puts her characters in a linguistic bubble; these teenagers never say "black" and "white." They refer to race, and to much else, in their own code, trying especially hard to ignore their skin differences. The script ripples with the girls' own secret twin-speak, and the poetic word games are so rapid-fire that at times the girls are nearly a single voice.

And at other times, they aren't. The relationship is wound tight as the rope around the tetherball pole that's between Lach and Lam for most of the evening, and it often happens that one of the competitive siblings (usually Lach) storms off in anger. Tetherball is the twins' sport, and if the imagery of that is a bit tidy and precious, so, too, are some of the self-conscious repetitions and catchphrases as Oni's drama riffs its way toward a climax.

The play needs a crisis, and the "Oh, no!" trigger Oni chooses is so momentous in its own right that it threatens to derail the play. Still, there is an intriguing method in the wordplay madness, and a worthy question: Can selective language insulate the girls from the sorts of race-conscious boxes that American society insists upon? Or are the boxes so real in 1990s Los Angeles (the play's period) that they rip the lid off language anyway?

That dilemma is getting a very sympathetic hearing in Jessica Lefkow's confident, no-frills production. The stage of the Studio Theatre at Silver Spring's Cultural Arts Center is bare but for the tetherball set that Grastorf and Wheeler whack at during Oni's brief scenes (the show is a series of blackout sketches). The interplay between the performers is lively and very sharp, from the easy, near-constant physical contact between the twins to the verbal deliveries that switch on a dime from sing-songy to snappish.

Watch Wheeler as her Jade meditatively plays with Lach's blond ponytail, and note Grastorf's Lach as she yawns and stretches Lam's arm backward, an old sisterly habit, before they play. The actresses fill these subtle moments, and it's compelling to listen as they swat Oni's broken language back and forth.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Tether by Julie Taiwo Oni. Directed by Jessica Lefkow. Lighting design, Liz Replogle; costumes, Sarah Kendrick; scenery and properties, Carmen Gomez; sound, Brandon Roe. About 90 minutes. Through March 13 at the Studio Theater of the Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Call 240-567-5775 or visit www.tickets.com.


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