ArtsATL Review: THE LIGHT
March 30th, 2022
Review: Political, personal differences come into view in Horizon’s “The Light”
BENJAMIN CARR·MARCH 30, 2022
The Light, the challenging new play onstage at Horizon Theatre through April 17, shines most brightly because of its two actors, who share a spectacular chemistry as we follow their characters from the highest joy to darker places.
These are two of the year’s best performances.
Cynthia D. Barker and Enoch King play Genesis and Rashad, a Black couple in Chicago celebrating their two-year anniversary in her Oak Park, Illinois, condo. She is a magnet school principal. He is a single-dad firefighter who met her while taking his daughter to school. Written by Loy A. Webb and originally intended for an Horizon staging in March 2020, the play opens with Rashad alone, preparing a celebration, hiding an engagement ring in Genesis’ kitchen cabinet. She arrives home, talking about how a work-based political discussion between other teachers has gone wrong.
The play is set in 2018 during the time of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and the couple discusses the sexual assault allegations brought against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford abstractly. They’re both against Kavanaugh, but their objections to his nomination are shaded with nuance. Rashad opposes President Trump’s agenda at all costs. Genesis more directly stands with Ford because of what it means for a sexual assault victim to come forward.
This moment early in their exchanges is key to understanding where this surprising play, which begins with a very lived-in and extremely romantic vibe, intends to take the audience by its end. The play is structured like an onion, where we regard it at first in our hand for what it seems to be before we delve into its many, many layers.
The moments leading up to the heart of the play include a discussion of the characters’ individual and shared pasts, much teasing and flirting and an incredible, very moving marriage proposal. When Rashad surprises Genesis with concert tickets to see their favorite singer, who is on the bill with a controversial headliner she finds problematic, the romantic evening becomes contentious as it devolves into an argument about sexual misconduct allegations and misogyny from the concert headliner.
The joy soon fades for the characters, leading to deep, necessary discussions of the Black experience, gender politics and trauma.
All through this discussion, King and Barker are genius sparring partners, grounding their characters with an intimacy and abiding affection. King’s character can be jovial and goofy, even when he is alone in the scene scrambling to grab things off shelves. Every gesture carries meaning, infused with insecurity and emotion that he doesn’t dare show his girlfriend. Rashad’s deeper hurts and pains, as they emerge in the discussion, always feel authentic.
Barker is a marvel here, and the powerhouse second half of the narrative — where things turn intense and personal — pretty much belongs to her. After one costume-change moment driven by the plot, you won’t be able to take your eyes off her. There are monologues she gets, where King’s character listens and reacts while stricken and heartbroken, that are incredibly well done. Genesis is the one who mentions “the light” of the title, and she does so at two very different points. In one, she’s talking about a moment of intimacy. In another, she speaks with desperation about lost hope.
The organized structure of Webb’s script itself leans into the issues surrounding the sexual trauma conversation between the two, which doesn’t necessarily flow as realistically as it would in actual life. People who had been dating for two years would, hopefully, have discussed these points throughout their relationship. But the direction from Marguerite Hannah and Lydia Fort turns the conversation into a pressure cooker here, building up steam for 75 minutes with no breaks or intermission.
There is a reason for this structure. Webb’s script moves in layers, from talking about gender politics and sexual trauma at a distance to up close, giving the debate a chance to flow like a tennis match between men and women. It gives the audience a chance to change their minds about how they view a situation. The show’s revelations and twists make the conversation very provocative.
Questions raised by The Light go from being hypothetical to in-your-face. Both characters raise very solid points about privilege, race and sexism.
Loy has said that the play is based upon the real-life sexual assault allegations against actor-director Nate Parker that resurfaced in the press during the release of his 2016 film The Birth of a Nation. Parker had been accused of assault while in college by a woman who later committed suicide.
But the play itself could also be a discussion of Kavanaugh, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby or any other accused figure from the #MeToo movement. It’s a fascinating script.
Horizon Theatre Company’s technical production elements are stunning. The set design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is just gorgeous. The Curley-Clays have created a space you want to live in, decorated with touches from prop designers Nick Battaglia and Ashley Bingham that show these two characters have very specific tastes. The way the actors move through the space suggests a familiarity and ease they have in the environment and with one another.
The costumes from Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss also are a highlight, for these characters dress up and dress down to reflect their changing moods.
The Light is a triggering play full of deep feeling. Its joy is so palpable that, when it is lost, the audience mourns for it. The pain of the show and the questions it raises linger, thanks to two incredible performances.
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His book Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021 and is a Georgia Author of the Year Award nominee in the first novel category.