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Review: ‘A Hit Dog Will Holler’ tackles the private toll on Black women activists

Cheri VandenHeuvel and Donna Simone Johnson in the world premiere of "A Hit Dog Will Holler" at Skylight Theatre.
Cheri VandenHeuvel and Donna Simone Johnson in the world premiere of “A Hit Dog Will Holler” at Skylight Theatre.
(Kelly Stuart)

We’ve been living through traumatic events in recent years — the mass shootings, the natural disasters supercharged by climate change, a once-in-a-century pandemic, the Trump presidency capped off by an attempted political coup, the flatulent troublemaking of Borat-dupe Rudy Giuliani.

For people of color, these experiences are compounded by the inescapability of racism. In “A Hit Dog Will Holler,” directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera at Skylight Theatre (through Dec. 12), rising playwright Inda Craig-Galván examines the private toll on two Black women who are in the trenches in the war against racial injustice.

The play, a co-production of Skylight Theatre Company and Playwrights’ Arena at Skylight Theatre, takes place in February 2020. COVID-19 is here but hasn’t yet closed down the country. Trump has just been acquitted in his first Senate impeachment trial, and the national outlook is bleak.

Gina, a social media influencer, podcaster and writer, conducts her activism from the confines of her attractive home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. She lives alone and hasn’t left the house in years, but she’s deeply connected to the protest community through her virtual presence.

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Her days are spent calling out oppression, rallying the forces whenever there’s a police killing of an unarmed Black person and shoring up communal morale in the face of an onslaught of grievous news. The effect of all this tragedy on her psyche isn’t fully apparent until a food delivery person shows up at her door.

The sound of insistent knocking sends Gina into a Kafkaesque tailspin. When she opens the door, she hears the roar of the apocalypse. Dru, the overly solicitous person carrying her food, is concerned for Gina’s well-being and sticks around despite the brusque reception.

Suffering from a self-diagnosed case of “acute social agoraphobia,” Gina doesn’t allow anyone to cross her threshold. If she wasn’t so incapacitated by panic, she’d be even more outraged that a perfect stranger was standing in her living room offering her a glass of water.

The dramatic setup swells with contrivances. There’s a painting hanging on Gina’s wall that coincidentally holds personal meaning for Dru. Without giving too much away, the playwright uses this artwork as a device for keeping her characters improbably together.

Neither Cheri VandenHeuvel, who plays Gina, nor Donna Simone Johnson, who portrays Dru (Kacie Rogers will soon be taking over the role), is able to make the stilted circumstances of the meeting seem credible. The awkward blocking between the actors accentuates the unreality, but the play eventually settles into a less awkward groove.

Dru, an underground activist and artist working as a delivery person to pay the bills, isn’t in a rush to reveal her heavily camouflaged identity. But eventually it comes out that she is DruCDru, the “so-called Banksy of Black Lives Matter,” as Gina, who’s always on the lookout for a media opportunity for herself, excitedly phrases it. (Scoring an interview with the elusive DruCDru would rescue Gina’s faltering book deal.)

Craig-Galván sets up an odd couple relationship between a social media queen and a queer guerrilla warrior rumored to have knocked over a Confederate statue and covered it with graffiti. Dru is as sincere as Gina is snarky — and as radical as she is careerist. But the two share a common bond in being Black women in a society that undervalues their contributions and endangers their lives.

Unlike “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” an earlier play by Craig-Galván (presented at the Geffen Playhouse) that took flight into the realm of fantasy, “A Hit Dog Will Holler” operates in a more realistic mode. Beyond the expressionistic sound effect when the door to Gina’s home is opened, the play follows a more conventional logic.

The theatrical situation of two characters trapped in the same room isn’t easy to sustain, but Craig-Galván finds a thematically resonant solution. An unexpected twist in the relationship occurs. Suffice it to say that Gina and Dru may not see eye to eye on how to change the world, but their alienation and anxieties spring from the same sociopolitical source.

Unfortunately, too much time is spent signaling the differences between the characters. Gina and Dru are so busy explaining themselves that they have little opportunity to just be themselves. Craig-Galván, an alum of USC’s graduate dramatic writing program, has been quickly garnering national recognition. But she’s still refining her craft.

VandenHeuvel and Johnson have trouble falling into the rhythm of Craig-Galván’s sometimes strained dialogue. Gina refers to herself as a “wordsmith,” a tone-deaf description that makes Dru laugh. But Gina says she’s as serious “as a heart attack.” She proudly reels off her credentials as a “political slash cultural slash activistic web strategist” who can afford to have her meals delivered around the clock.

Despite some of the unconvincing-sounding talk, the actors endow their roles with textured individuality. Their portrayals are less schematic, which is to say more hauntingly real, than the characters’ pronouncements about themselves.

The play to its credit resists the more cliched route of a rescue narrative. Dru has not dropped into Gina’s secluded life to help reintegrate her into flesh-and-blood society. Both characters must work through the PTSD of being Black and female in America.

The physical production, with its projections by Nicholas Santiago of tumultuous newspaper headlines, keeps the outside world in sight. Rivera’s staging, capitalizing on a believably contemporary interior set by scenic designer Jan Munroe, gives the play an expansive breadth.

At times, “A Hit Dog Will Holler” suggests that it might be transforming into a love story. That’s one way of looking at what unfolds between Gina and Dru. But their unlikely relationship is not marked by romance. A shared wound unites them. Leaders in the fight for freedom, they are like exhausted healthcare workers who have come to recognize that they too need a helping hand.

'A Hit Dog Will Holler'

Where: Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. (Watch from home virtual performances will be available in December.) Ends Dec. 12.

Contact: (213) 761-7061 or http://skylighttix.com

Tickets: Start at $20

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes


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