Review: Anarchy in the theatre: InterAct’s ‘Marcus/Emma’ at the Drake

Akeem Davis and Susan Riley Stevens in the InterAct Theatre Company production of “Marcus/Emma.” Photo by Kathryn Raines/Plate 3

By Margaret Darby

The InterAct Theatre Company is represented by some of the most energetic and dedicated young people in the region.  Their mission is to commission, develop, and produce new plays and I commend them and applaud them on their devotion to this mission, but, in the interest of developing new talent, there are some criticisms which must be expressed.

The play “Marcus/Emma,” by Mary Tuomanen, portrays two radical idealists, Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman, and has them meet and discuss their beliefs. This is a brilliant idea and a wonderful way to raise our consciousness about the radicals in America at the beginning of the 20th century, but I feel the play could be more reminiscent of the 1920s when the fame and popularity of Marcus and Emma were at their height.

First of all, I had trouble with the way the two characters met. Marcus Garvey simply walks into Emma’s apartment/speaker’s podium and treats it as his own. Why not have them meet in a café in New York, have their hands brush and the lights dim with romantic implications. Instead, Emma practically rapes Marcus and is given quite a bit of raw sexual dialogue.  Marcus finally succumbs, but not before criticizing Emma’s white, aging features.

Emma Goldman was born in1869 and Marcus Garvey in 1887. When Emma decides to create a character of her vaginal labia to seduce Marcus, it seemed a bit out of the norm for a woman’s conduct in 1920. Granted, Ms. Tuomanen is well-acquainted with the historical Emma and has played her on stage and she is correct that Emma was an advocate of free love and proved it by sleeping with many men, some casual acquaintances. Yet knowing people from that era, I think the language would be more subtle. Marcus’ language was much more restrained than Emma’s and his innocence was played charmingly by Mr. Davis.

Director Rebecca Wright had poor Emma (Susan Riley Stevens), sit on the stage for the twenty or so minutes it took the audience to get settled.  Having the audience observe the impatient and agitated Emma was a great idea, but bring her out much later, after most of the audience has been seated and pulled out their cough drops so they will notice that Emma is shuffling papers and preparing her next move with manic energy.

Both Susan Riley Stevens and Akeem Davis, in their roles as Emma and Marcus, were perfectly solid in their assigned reactionary boxes and the most fascinating parts of Ms. Tuomanen’s play was when they actually discussed their differences.  For example, Garvey was more than proud of being rich, owning a cruise line, and having lunch at the Plaza, but Goldman warned him against the lures of capitalism.

Akeem Davis is convincing as a young Marcus, the idealist who feels that just organizing the black people of the world will solve everything and Susan Riley Stevens embodies the more cunning and wizened revolutionary, who knows he will fail.

The set (Sara Outing) and costuming (Sydney Marseca) were excellent in every detail: Marcus’ uniform, hat and suspenders and Emma’s undergarments showed dedicated attention to detail. .  The ‘apartment’ had its own bunk bed like ‘two room” corner, for the homelife and the large living room doubled as the podium and stage for each character.  Garvey addressed his audience and Goldman hers, as if we, the audience, were two different crowds and that was quite effective.

The 90-minute one-act is played without intermission and gets quite emotional at times.  Emma tries to incite the audience and on the night I was there, some obeyed, but others refused to play along.  When Marcus enters, he has a more formal and dignified bearing, but in the end, he succumbs.  And thus, Ms. Tuomanen, in a very contemporary way, has made us feel the two historical characters by placing them side-by-side and cheek by jowl.

“Marcus/Emma” is playing at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 1512 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA through Feb. 12.  Tickets cost $15 (students) to $35.  By them online at www.interacttheatre.org or call 215-568-8079.