“Before you pass judgement on one who is self destructing, it’s important to remember they aren’t trying to destroy themselves.  They’re trying to destroy something inside that doesn’t belong.” (JMStorm)  I got to see “Countdown” at The Strand Theater on Sunday.  This is a regional premiere and part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.  Before I go any further, I have a confession- I have taught for more than twenty years and I know all these girls.  No, I don’t work in a place like Hillside, I work in a public school system.  These girls will build your heart and break your heart all at the same time and I have known them all.

Before I roll deep in psychological teenage drama, let’s begin with the important part:  The Women’s Voices Theater Festival!  The Strand is the only female owned, operated and dominated theater in Baltimore.  Elena Kostakis took the stage for the curtain speech and announced that, through a private donor, all donations for the duration of Countdown will be matched!  GUYS!  This is huge!  Whip out those checkbooks and send them some money!  I happily placed some in the donation bucket- this is important!  If we want to act like good theater exists on its own- it doesn’t!  Your support is crucial and this is a simple way to help the arts and an awesome theater company too.

“Countdown” is a created piece that stems from playwright Dominique Cierei’s twenty-five years of teaching experience.  The girls are at a treatment center named Hillside in an unnamed city.  They are all high school age and suffer from a range of trauma from sexual assault, to witnessing a loved one’s death, to dealing with a mother with terminal illness, and so on.  They aren’t open or ready to deal with their own issues, let alone someone else’s.  When a teacher shows up to instruct them in a forty-day workshop, they are reluctant to join her.  When she does start to unravel their inner truths, she helps them find voice, strength, and all the healing components needed to transition out of such a facility.

One of the refrains from these girls is “I want to be a different girl born on a different day.”  These girls have not asked for this in their lives.  But they are so young, and all they’ve ever known in their trauma.  So they wear it in peculiar ways, they sass, they stare, they stutter, they slam.  And they define themselves by the acts of others thrust upon them, because all their identity has ever known is this.  It is heart wrenching and moving and so true it hurts.  These kids need kindness, but they make it awfully hard to deliver.  They have been hurt so much, by so many, they trust no one but themselves. And as Malissa refrains, “nuthin means nuthin,” to her, or any of them anymore.

The play itself is masterful.  Between the acute depths of each of these girls to the shifting caretaker, this is a well-crafted story with depth, arc, and a few plot twists that I did not see coming.  The lead girl, Neema (Zipporah Brown) is a mess.  And Zipporah does an amazing job of capturing her innocence, her sexual frustration, her embarrassment of scars and past, and her truth- “She had ten children, they took seven, I stayed behind.”  Her performance is simply breathtaking.  Rashida (IO Browne) can sing, and this canary bird is trapped by a step-mother who sees her as a threat to her adopted father’s affections.  She is crude, rude, and lashes out at everyone around her.  IO really embodies the essence of teenage angst.  Blanca (Malissa Cruz Romero) takes off her earrings to challenge each one of the girls to a fight before realizing she can control them in other fashions, and maybe has potential as a leader.  Malissa’s spot on accent, obsessions with baseball, and description of her artwork in the end is phenomenal. Esi is played by Natalie Dent, and is so convincing in her snarls, her discussions of her turtle, and her heartbreak at watching her mother die, she brought tears to my eyes.  Twice.  Miriam played by Rose Hahn is a girl suffering from tourettes who refuses to medicate.  As her hand gestures become more and more wild, her inner turmoil takes shape.  She masterfully pulls herself in and out of this role as demanded for flashback sequences.  The physical control is to be commended.  Tizzy is played by Nell Quinn-Gibney, and can’t stop tapping.  Her crisis in class leads to a full group intervention and establishes the foundation for her confessions of recent trauma near the end of the play.  And Amber, played by Kylie Miller is so over the top in her behaviors, she depicts the personality some girls slip into after being traumatized at an early age.  Her promiscuity is not her fault, but finds its way into all of her mechanisms.

The lone male character is played by George Oliver Buntin.  Hobbs is the overseer for the facility and his first interactions are for safety.  He goes on to represent their downfall as well, when he shifts in the back from Hobbs to a drug dealer during a theatrical moment within in the play. And then there’s Carmela, played by Brittany Nicole Timmons.  Her energy, her nervousness, her faked ebullience, her willingness to please to acquiesce, to find the truth and obey the rules, make her what we all strive for in teaching.  That moment when she cries on the side of the stage, just outside the classroom and tells herself nothing is worth this- is such a visceral moment for all teachers I wanted to stand and applaud.  We have all cried over our jobs, our students, our inability to make the world utopian- for unending supplies to meet all our students needs, unending support and love to give them all. The reality is that the well does run dry and teachers burn out.  We give and give and give, and that one moment we get back- a genuine kindness, carries us for some time until the next one.

The set and lighting were perfunctory for the depiction of time and place.  My favorite were the small details, the songs that swiped one scene to the next and the recurrent playing of “U-N-I-T-Y.”  The way the black paint streaked at the top of the stage reminiscent of a cityscape, as though we were on hillside outside of town.  The crumbling brick at the front, to remind us that homes for “girls like this” are never clean and well-funded.  But tap into these girls creative well-spring, earn their trust, and the masks they unveil, the performance they share will be and is, mesmerizing.

Should I stay or should I go? GO.  Do not wait. This is a powerful piece with amazing actors, stunning storytelling, and a marvelous message that is both social and psychological.  This is fascinating and fixating theater at its finest. Get a ticket before they are gone, and donate to The Strand while you are there!  This is utterly captivating and a performance you will not soon forget. (I)

Runs through March 4th at The Strand Theater Company.  Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

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