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Spoken-word poetry buoys ‘The Joy That Carries You’ in Olney premiere

An uplifting vision is at the heart of new play by local playwrights Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller.

Billie Krishawn as Alaia in “The Joy That Carries You,” through June 12 at Olney Theatre Center. (Teresa Castracane /Olney Theatre Center)
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“You are the seas to either side of me,/ And the buoys in between,” a poet character named Alaia recites in “The Joy That Carries You,” a moving, well-crafted and cathartic play now in a world premiere run at Olney Theatre Center.

The maritime metaphor is Alaia’s tribute to a much-missed relative, but it also hints at the uplifting vision at the heart of “Joy.” Co-writers Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller have created a tale in which romantic and family relationships strain at the seams, racked in part by issues of race and identity. But reconciliation and togetherness are also possible, the play asserts, its conviction as uplifting as one of those lyrically conjured buoys.

Smoothly directed by Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister, and realized by a top-tier cast, “Joy” centers on lovers Alaia (a luminous Billie Krishawn) and Shiri (a persuasive Stoller). The two women initially seem to be beautifully in sync: When they go on a car trip, Shiri knows to pack Alaia’s must-have snack (brie and crackers).

But the couple’s different heritages — Alaia is African American and Shiri, Ashkenazi Jewish — become sources of stress and divisiveness when they visit Shiri’s well-meaning father and stepmother (Michael Russotto and Susan Rome) for Thanksgiving. Another circumstance adds to the heartache: Alaia is alienated from her family, including her mother (Lolita Marie) and stepfather (James J. Johnson).

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Playwrights Secka and Stoller do a fine job charting their characters’ relationships through awkward moments, tensions and resentments, parental expectations, and loyalties and quirks. In one particularly effective sequence, brimming with unease and stilted small talk, Shiri serves coffee to Alaia’s brother (a fabulous Bru Ajueyitsi), nervously declaiming the nondairy creamer options she has available.

Like the dramatic stretches, the play’s frequent humor is enjoyably character-driven and -defining. Case in point: Shiri’s parents’ excited commentary as they watch “The West Wing,” using their phones to research whether key cast members are Jewish.

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With such scenes, “Joy” glides satisfyingly along on the level of naturalistic, well-made play. Elevating the piece above that level is the spoken-word verse that Alaia occasionally recites. The playwrights surely have their hands full as D.C.-area multi-talents — Secka is well known as a performer; Stoller’s plays include “Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes” (seen at Signature Theatre). But, in a future draft, they might consider adding to this play’s distinctiveness by slightly expanding the spoken-word element, were it possible to make compensating trims elsewhere.

Meshing splendidly with the poetry is Misha Kachman’s scenic design, whose stylized, dangling picture frames find echoes in projections that flush with colored light. (Alberto Segarra is the lighting designer.) The jewel-tone visuals especially complement the ultimately gladdening plot twists.

Cynics might see those twists as unduly feel-good. But if we can’t imagine reconciliation and understanding, how will our world ever achieve it?

The Joy That Carries You, by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller. Directed by Jason Loewith and Kevin McAllister; costume design, Danielle Preston; sound, Matthew Nielson; intimacy choreographer, Sierra Young. About 2 1/2 hours. $59-$79. Through June 12 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.

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