By Daniel Skora
There are a couple of figurative dances going on in Joseph Zettelmaier’s new play, “The Decade Dance”, currently being presented by the Williamston Theatre. The first is the larger dance of the political and cultural events of the 1970’s, the decade that forms the play’s time span and which gives it its name. The second dance is the personal one that takes place between the two characters Zettelmaier has chosen to humanize his story. Taking a stylistic cue from “Same Time, Next Year”, he divides the play into ten scenes, one for every year of the decade. In each, he has his two characters coming together and evolving against the broad canvas of history.
The seventies began as an extension of the sixties. The war in Vietnam, still several years away from ending, continued to provoke student unrest and campus protests. Drug use and promiscuity, sugar coated with the expression “free love”, were so wildly accepted that even those who didn’t use or so engage would readily admit to doing so. The Civil Rights movement continued to occupy the national consciousness, one president resigned over a petty breaking and entering affair, and another served only one term before he was sent packing back to the peanut farm from which he came. The United States celebrated its 200th birthday as a nation and movie theaters once again turned our eyes to the skies with the popularity of the film “Star Wars”.
With these events always in constant flux, we become privy to the lives of Roger Weems and Nina Reynolds, who get caught up in the big events of the decade and each other’s personal lives. To capture the progressive attitudes of the times, Zettelmaier has made them a bi-racial couple. Roger (Mitchell Koory) is a white Vietnam veteran whose war injuries have contributed to his drug problem. He’s a nice enough individual, a not very complex guy who likes to read comic books. Nina (Tiffany Mitchenor)) is a black woman dedicated to all the right causes. She’s intelligent, good looking, and polished enough to be able to move in the most sophisticated of circles. The two meet at a protest and decide to have a one night stand, she, because everybody else is doing it, and he, because, well, just because he’s a guy. Nina and Roger’s lives intersect over the years until, eventually, they become an important part of each other’s lives.
Williamston’s production, directed by Joey Albright, does justice to both of the show’s dances. Koory and Mitchnor work well together, Mitchenor especially, not only because she has the most scrumptious of the two parts, but truly has the stature and demeanor of someone who’s in charge. Since no one should be wearing the same clothes over a ten year period, the costumes, designed by Karen Kangas-Preston, change often. Relief woodcuts recall critical images from the decade, like Kent State, The Thrilla in Manilla, and R. Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’ and along with symbols popular during the decade like the yin and the yang and the Happy Face form a faux proscenium arch backdrop . The bicentennial fireworks are nicely handled by Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design.
There’s one thing about Zettlemaier’s play that doesn’t ring true. Verisimilitude is the word the academics use to describe the fact that things that happen in stories should happen the way they would in real life. Here, we are expected to believe that an intelligent, classy young woman would give herself to a man she barely knows, has, in fact, mistakenly taken him to be a part of the protesting group when in reality he merely wandered by to see what was going on. The initial one night stand between Nina and Roger can be forgiven as a night of sexual experimentation brought on by the times. But things eventually get more serious and the relationship between the two is anything but a relationship between equals. Because Roger is a regular good guy and because Nina keeps crossing paths with him are not good enough reasons for the relationship to develop into what it eventually becomes. One only has to compare Nina’s statuesque beauty to the comical bandito look on Roger’s face which he carries throughout the entire decade, to realize this is a relationship made not in heaven but by the words in a playwright’s script.
The world premier of “The Decade Dance” runs through May 1st. Tickets are available at the Williamston website at www.williamston.org or Tuesday through Friday by calling 1.517.655.7496 or in person at the Williamston box office. Williamston Theatre is located at 122 S. Putnam Road in downtown Williamston. Take I-96 west and get off at Exit 117.