By Charles Brousse
My guess is that it won’t take you more than five or 10 minutes of watching AlterTheater’s production of Bondage to recognize that this is the real thing—what we look for in live theater, but rarely find.
Star Finch, its author, is a local woman. Born in San Francisco, she went to San Francisco State for a B.A. (Anthropology) and M.A. (Creative Writing), and made her professional debut in 2015 with H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), produced by the Mission District’s Campo Santo theater company. In the same year, she was commissioned to write a new work by AlterTheater as part of its remarkably successful “AlterLab” program, and now here it is in a strong production directed by Elizabeth Carter.
I didn’t see H.O.M.E., so I have to rely on a second-hand report. In her review, San Francisco Chronicle critic Lily Janiak predicted a bright future for the young playwright, citing her ability to involve memorable characters in a story that reflected contemporary issues, told in a distinctive quasi-poetic style that blends reality with science fiction. The only problem seemed to be one that affects many playwrights’ early work—a tendency to expand the content beyond what the narrative can comfortably accommodate. All of these virtues are present in Bondage and, while the danger of excess remains, it doesn’t negate the conclusion that Finch is a formidable addition to American playwriting. Looked at broadly, the play is a rich collection of psychosocial threads that include Freudian psychology, racism and sibling rivalry, bound together by a literary style that Finch labels “Afro-Surreal.”
Actually, Bondage is more Chekhovian than anything else. The action takes place on a rundown island plantation somewhere in the Caribbean during the waning days of 19th century slavery. It’s an isolated, claustrophobic world from which all of Finch’s characters would gladly escape if only they could find a way and have some clarity about what to do if their goal was achieved. Lacking both, the frustration level is extremely high, particularly for a pair of 13-year-old cousins who have been raised as sisters by Philip (Shane Fahy), the somewhat befuddled master of the household, who took on the task after his own sister died. Although he attempts to be fair to both his prim and proper daughter Emily (Emily Serdahl), and niece Zuri (a flamboyant Dezi Soley), who had a black father, he can’t quite overcome the racial bias that goes with being a slave owner. When that happens, it’s Philip’s black housekeeper Azucar (Cathleen Riddley) who must mediate the conflict.
Emily and Zuri’s relationship is also heavily affected by the racial issue. During childhood they played games together and were close in many respects, including sleeping in the same bed. Yet, Emily’s higher status as Philip’s white-skinned daughter has meant that she enjoys more privileges and material advantages than her darker cousin. When added to normal sibling rivalry, they create occasional power struggles that have to be controlled by the watchful Azucar. When these occur, demure Emily’s only weapon is a society-bestowed racial superiority that is easily countered by Zuri’s more aggressive, carefree attitude, and sexual maturity. Everything reaches an emotional climax when crotchety old Aunt Ruby (Emilie Talbot) comes for a visit and finds the girls in a compromising situation under a bedsheet.
By now, it should be clear that Bondage is not just about race. Like Chekhov’s refugees from a crumbling czarist regime, all of Finch’s characters are shackled by forces they can’t control. Strange, then, that she should end with a shocking act (which I won’t reveal) that is anything but liberating. For me, it was the only false note in an otherwise splendid play that adds to Finch’s reputation and that of AlterTheater, as well.
NOW PLAYING: Bondage runs through April 16 at AlterTheater’s temporary space, 200 Tamal Plaza, Corte Madera (opposite the DMV); 415/454-2787; altertheater.org.