By Joanna Evans; Directed by Shariffa Ali
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.2.17
The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street
by Ran Xia on 4.27.17
Elaine Ivy Harris and Kambi Gathesha in Year of the Bicycle. Photo by Michael Bonasio.
BOTTOM LINE: Joanna Evans' ethereal play tells the story of an unlikely friendship that sustains the spirit of two people even in moments of disaster.
The performance space at The Cell appears to have a past life as an apartment, with a welcoming atmosphere that makes Joanna Evans’ ethereal gem of a play almost a site-specific production. Set designer You-Shin Chen sprinkles on a former living room floor objects you might find in a garden: a bicycle wheel, a soccer ball, and other objects of childhood. It's accompanied by whimsical, nondescript music before the sound of a mechanical wheel rewinds us back in time to the beginning of a friendship between a princess and a pauper
It is South Africa, 1997: R. Kelly’s "I Believe I Can Fly" tops the charts, South Africa has qualified for FIFA, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are all the rage, and Amelia (Elaine Ivy Harris) opens her door to Andile (Kambi Gathesha) for the first time. They are both 8 years old, but come from drastically different backgrounds: one is white and rich (her garden is 1.3 acres); the other is black and poor. The one thing that connects them, however, is loneliness. They become fast friends and make up imaginary games together: Andile makes a “little brother” out of a blanket with a bit wrapped with an elastic band (as a tiny head), and the pair share the responsibility of caring for the "baby."
The evolution of Amelia and Andile’s relationship is elaborated through fragmented memories: Amelia's 1997 consists of a lot of waiting between Andile's visits; while Andile's memories are retold as entries in his diary, connected through a literal thread, with which Gathesha connects various objects around the stage, eventually enclosing the entire space within a fragile frame. From the innocent perspectives of two children, the play muses on some profound issues including racial segregation in South Africa. Amelia describes her world as a terrarium: on her side, everything is unbearably dull, but on the other side, represented by Andile, is an explosion of excitement. The best friends name the alphabet of joyous noise on Andile's side of the town: A for African drumming, all the way through Z for Zulu. And once you’ve pieced together clues from the non-linear plot, you’ll realize the significance of this extraordinary, almost magical connection between Amelia and Andile. In 2007 the estranged friends finally meet again, but only in their respective minds. Nevertheless, their loneliness is yet again assuaged by their memories of each other.
Director Shariffa Ali makes full use of the space and lifts Evan’s poetic, dreamlike text off the page into a kaleidoscopic narrative. With two simple hand held lights (Chris Stechel) and simple tonal shifts, the various layers of the story are made clear. Additionally, a two-tiered rolling cart is turned into a spinning mind space that contains the subconscious of the two children, as well as at times the imaginary airplane Amelia tries to fly in. Gathesha and Harris, both dynamic performers, embody the vulnerability and strength that co-exist in every child. It’s impossible to look away from their magnetic chemistry on stage.
Year of the Bicycle is a bittersweet story that will keep you engaged and leave you wanting more. It’s a story that possesses both the lightness of reading a childhood diary filled with moments of mundane joy, and the heaviness of mourning over a tremendous loss.
(Year of the Bicycle plays at The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street, through May 2, 2016. The running time is 50 minutes with no intermission. Remaining performances are Wednesday 4/26 at 7; Thursday 4/27 at 7; Monday 5/1 at 8; and Tuesday 5/2 at 7. Tickets are $10 and are available at brownpapertickets.com.)
Year of the Bicycle is by Joanna Evans. Directed by Shariffa Ali. Set and Costume Design is by You-Shin Chen. Lighting Design is by Chris Steckel. Stage Manager is Kayla Santos. Assistant Stage Manager is Babette Wickham-Riddick.
The cast is Kambi Gathesha and Elaine Ivy Harris.