Review: Nothin' Nice @ Carpet Bag Theatre

It's a chilly Saturday night on Market Square and I'm running a bit late. I hurry past Oodles and the Tomato Head before ducking down the ally beside Cafe 4 where I'm relieved to see that there's still a line of people stretching out the door of The Square Room. As I draw closer I begin to hear it: the unmistakable bombastic zip and thump of trumpets, trombones, tuba, and drums. What a great sound system they must have, I think to myself just before catching a glimpse of the New Orleans-based Free Spirit Brass Band bringing the house down live on stage as members of the audience literally dance in the isles. As pre-show atmosphere goes, it really doesn't get much better than that. 

Nothin' Nice is full of those sorts of moments: surprising, vivacious, and moving theatre that balances provocative social messaging with human drama, and soaring musical elements. Written by Carpet Bag's founder and Executive Artistic Director Linda Parris-Bailey, Nothin Nice is set during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the flood-blighted and pollution-savaged Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The story follows Lonewolf, a young man struggling to navigate life and death issues of maturity, family loyalty, social disenfranchisement, and environmental racism. In the confident hands of visiting director Harry Bryce, the production achieves an obvious clarity of vision and aesthetic unity, with vibrant stage action and a clear sense of purpose. This is first and foremost a human story, and Bryce is effective in generating an exciting narrative pace that is most striking for its emotional honesty and frequent humor. He trusts the text and his audience enough not to belabor the show's political message; choosing instead to highlight the effect that larger social issues have on characters we come to quickly care about. 

As the show's lead, Omar Madden (Lonewolf) crafts an exceptionally earnest and passionate portrayal. It is to his credit that though Lonewolf's story carries him across a great emotional distance, the core of Madden's careful depiction is of a young man less changed by his circumstances than revealed or perhaps fully realized to both himself and the audience. As Lonewolf comes to comprehend the injustices of the world and what he must do to combat them, we simultaneously come to more fully understand his inner life and recognize the part we play in the hardships he endures. Playing across Madden is Saiya Palmer who gives an utterly fearless and remarkably astute performance as the mother of Lonewolf's child, Nicole. Impressive for its resistance to rough categorization, Palmer's Nicole is at once impetuous, empathetic, pragmatic, indomitable, and flirtatious. Such a nuanced depiction would be considered adept by any measure, but is especially impressive from a young actress only in her early teens. Kisha Rockett is compassionate and vital as Lonewolf's mother Lil. Crucially, Rockett guards Lil's deep vulnerabilities behind a dauntless and humorous facade until the moment they are revealed. The impact of her subsequent emotional outpouring became for me the most deeply moving moment of the evening, while her powerful call to action in the final scene was yet another of the play's most stirring moments. Rounding out the principal cast is Bert Tanner in the role of Victor, Lonewolf's uncle and a community organizer. In a role that exists to give voice to specific social issues, Tanner wisely focuses on crafting a rich and complex character motivated by equal parts ideology, worldly experience, and simple human stubbornness. As a result we come to see Victor as a stalwart, flawed and relatable man, whose voice reflects the show's larger message rather than being dictated by it.

It is impossible to talk about this production without talking about the music, and thanks to the immense talent of Paula Larke, the show's Musical Director, I find it hard to put into words how impactful the score was. Larke, playing the character of Maylene is seated stage left throughout the performance with an electric base strapped across her knee. From here she leads a chorus of school aged performers and the rest of the cast (all of which are skilled vocalists in their own right) through a sweeping array of protest songs, spirituals, popular music, and more. Larke's voice, at times consumed with voluminous ache, at other times vaulting unbridled with exultation, does more than merely heighten the action on stage. Her music - and all the music of this show - taps directly into the audience's well of human compassion, resilience, and hope; it touches us and moves us in a primal way that, even at its most perfect, the medium of drama alone seldom can.

Technical Director Cheles Rhynes assembles a talented crew of artisans to realize the world of Nothin' Nice on the Square Room stage. John Ferguson's well conceived set design effectively depicts both the interior and exterior of several small row houses, and his incorporation of a front porch for Maylene and her "kids" to sit on was an especially apt bit of stagecraft. Darren McCroom makes bold use of the Square Room’s ample lighting grid with his rich and colorful lighting design. His choice to employ stark down-lighting on the upstage window louvers created a dynamic effect that added depth to the space and helped to shape the tone of several scenes.

If you weren't able to get tickets to this exceptional sold out run of Nothin' Nice, you can take solace in two things. One: Carpet Bag Theatre isn’t going anywhere. The company is currently staging their 49th season of shows, and after half a century, they are seeking funding for a permanent Knoxville performance home. Two: Their next show Dark Cowgirls & Prairie Queens goes up at UT's Carousel Theatre on the last weekend of March. Here's a link to their website.

I strongly recommend getting your tickets early.

I certainly plan to.

JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of Knoxville Theatre Club. Their newest original production, The Story Story opens March 8 at Modern Studio. Learn more here.