Love, in Tanya Barfield’s vision of the world, is a journey that starts and stops, jumps through time and space – and even out of airplanes – yet always feels, somehow, consistently earthbound and utterly human.
Her new play, Bright Half Life, leaps through the decades-long romance of interracial couple, Erica (Rebecca Henderson) and Vicki (Rachael Holmes). Like many romances, theirs includes a meet-cute, a courtship, a marriage, some kids, and a separation — but not necessarily in that order. It also includes skydiving. The play is spread over just 60 minutes and moves at lightning speed; the sparse set leaves much to the imagination and audiences will have to stay alert to keep up with Barfield’s vaulting back and forth through the couple’s history.
And yet these shifts are rarely confusing. In her hands, these moments bump up against one another in ways that are by turns humorous, clever and poetic. At one point, we’re in a stalled elevator with the pair, the next we’re on a stalled ferris wheel at a different stage in their relationship. One minute they’re fighting, the next they’re gripped by a post-coital laughing fit. With sure-footed direction by Leigh Silverman well-judged lighting shifts by Jen Schriever, those transitions are achieved seamlessly.
Holmes and Henderson are appealing and believable in this two-hander, which, like Constellations, playing just a few blocks south, requires the complete focus and uninterrupted energy of its performers. Unlike Constellations, the protagonists of Bright Half Life come across as recognisably messy and messed up.
While many of their struggles are those of any relationship, theirs also includes the challenges unique to a lesbian relationship, one developing amid the shifting cultural and political American landscape regarding LGBT issues. It also includes those unique to an interracial relationship, which Barfield addresses with honesty and grace. “I don’t want to have to educate you about your whiteness,” Vicki tells Erica during one of the most heated dialogues they share on the subject.
There is something, it seems, about the nonlinear romance that speaks to the ethos of our day, judging by their increasing frequency on stage and screen. It’s a testament, perhaps, to the simultaneous diversification of family structures in this country, or the ever-expanding ways we are now able to meet — or sometimes re-meet — one another online. If this play is any indication, these unconventional narratives have the power to affect theatergoers, to speak to them, in ways that are novel and inspired. In a world that is changing as quickly as the scenes in Bright Half Life, it’s lucky that we have playwrights as creative and capable as Barfield to guide us.