Steven McCasland’s Memorare, running at St. John’s Lutheran Church until Jan. 27, 2018, is a fascinating and timely piece of work. With conversations that are still familiar today, a wonderful cast, and a beautifully-written story, the world-premiere production is a must-see.
The plays tells the story of Sister Mary Azu, a young Nigerian postulant who enters a New York City convent at the height of the 1964 Harlem riots. Among the all-white sisters of the convent, she receives a variety of reactions, ranging from welcoming to kind but questioning to racist. Throughout the play, the stories of the nuns are told, giving each character solid motivations for their actions and providing a well of emotional depth.
Throughout the story, the death of James Powell and the violence of the riots is constantly at the forefront. At first, only Sister Mary Azu is willing to say his name, while others refer to him as ‘the boy’ or refuse to mention him at all. Her insistence that his name be said echoes the sentiments of some activists today, while the victim-blaming and racial sentiments shared by Sister Mary Agnes are unfortunately familiar as well. McCasland’s writing, which has been called “brilliant”, “riveting”, “mesmerizing”, and “extraordinary”, is skillful and delicate, artfully creating both loud, shouted moments and intimate conversations between the characters.
The cast, made up of eight women, brings the story to life. Ashleigh Awusie plays Sister Mary Azu, and her performance as a young woman who has fled violence and tragedy in Nigeria is a standout. Also stellar is Kristen Gehling as the biased and bigoted Sister Mary Agnes, and Sabrina Petra as the optimistic and open-hearted Sister Mary Celeste. Penny Lynn White artfully portrays the unnamed Mother Superior, a woman who is both welcoming and cautious, and who delivers a stunning, chilling monologue in the middle of the piece.
JoAnn Mariano and Patti Mariano, real-life sisters who play sisters on stage, inhabit the respective roles of Sister Mary Hildegard and Sister Mary Cecilia. Their characters are simultaneously hilarious and affecting, and a comedic bit about the convent garden will ring true to anyone with siblings. The cast is rounded out by Janet Fanale as Sister Mary Eugenia, who adds touching depth to her character in the final moments of the show, and Joyce Nolen as the effective Sister Mary Bridget.
The church setting only enhances the material. While the large space has the potential to cause auditory issues (audience members are arrived to sit near the front of the pews on arrival), it also allows for the audience to feel immersed in the story as they sit on the wooden pews or folding chairs. The lighting design, by director Peter Darney and stage manager Jasmyn May Abuarab, marks the passing of scenes and is especially stunning during the aforementioned monologue by the Mother Superior.
Memorare ends its world-premiere run on Saturday, Jan. 27. However, tickets are still available for any audience member interested in this profound, timely piece of art.
Those interested can purchase tickets at https://www.showclix.com/event/memorare