In the opening scene of Magic Theatre resident playwright Star Finch’s new play, “Josephine’s Feast,” the family matriarch, Josephine, is gleefully preparing the voiceover for a short film she has made.
The film is a sort of personal retrospective—a collection of snapshots and memories—that will explain to her two twentysomething daughters why she has decided to make a major change in her life. “I am no longer a suitcase for you to pack all of your dreams, fears and hungers,” she narrates. “I’m no longer obligated to you.”
She plans to deliver the big announcement, and screen the film, at her birthday dinner today; tomorrow she heads off for a month, leaving behind the old life that was short-circuited by an unhappy marriage and children. Inspired by her namesake, the singer Josephine Baker, she envisions a new life for herself.
Josephine is a curious mix: full of rage and frustration, tough and plain-spoken, yet vulnerable. She’s a force of nature—you sympathize with her desire to be free of the shackles of motherhood but at the same time you’re shocked at her temerity. The inimitable Margo Hall sails through the role with aplomb, making all the contradictions in Josephine’s character—the steely convictions and the doubts—feel real.
Inevitably, things go awry at the feast, right down to the biblically weird weather that mirrors the household’s unrest. Older daughter Sami, a stern-faced lesbian (a wonderfully low-key Britney Frazier), and younger daughter Amaya (Jasmine Milan Williams), who’s engaged to be married but suddenly “aflame” over someone else, are shocked at Josephine’s plan to take off to a Black artists’ colony in New Mexico for a month.
“You don’t get a completely different storyline, not this late in the game,” says Sami flatly. Ouch! Goofy Uncle Tony (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) and his feckless son (Tre’Vonne Bell) are baffled. Only a non-family guest, free-spirited Lani (Tierra Allen), seems supportive of Josephine.
There’s lots going on in this fractious, voluble Black family. Over the course of two acts (with no intermission) discussions range from the true nature of men and marriage to getting through pandemic isolation to Uncle Tony’s latest money-making scheme and much more. Inevitably a secret is revealed. And plenty of drugs and alcohol are consumed.
Under the direction of longtime local theater artist Ellen Sebastian Chang, the Magic’s small playing area opens horizontally (eye-catching set design by Tanya Orellana) to encompass not just the dining room but also an upstage living room, a balcony and Josephine’s bedroom. There’s even a canopy over the main playing area where segments of Josephine’s film are projected, and where we at certain points see the strangely colorful shifts in the sky above (entrancing lighting design by Russell Champa). Still, the busyness of the set at times distracts from the dialogue.
And some of the acting is at times too big—not all the actors can pull off a larger-than-life character with the depth and authenticity of Hall.
Finch’s examination of a mother who finally seizes the moment to break free of the past may not break new theatrical ground—and it’s too bad that we don’t get to see exactly how those two adult daughters have been relying on Mom all this time (we’re just taking Josephine’s word for it)—but within this family drama plenty of moments, big and small, ring true.
One such small gem: “I wonder if my mother ever wanted to take off, too?” wonders Uncle Tony.
“Josephine’s Feast” continues through Aug. 20 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco; tickets are $30-$70 at magictheatre.org.