Dramaturgy can exist in a strange space between the tangible and the indefinable. Now firstly – if that kind of opening sentence is not for you, Waterboy and the Mighty World might not be either.
Waterboy had me thinking about dramaturgy, an oft invisible element of theater – likely because the show is at once an intellectual exercise, and is shaped totally by the mood in the room. These are contradictory motivations, and a certain kind of dramaturg might have insisted the artists behind Waterboy, The HawtPlates, pick one. They did not, and so here is Waterboy, a strange, sometimes powerful, often confusing experience.
Waterboy marks the world premiere performance of The HawtPlates, a new husband-wife-sister trio performing their own devised works. Their debut piece piece interweaves songs made famous by Odetta Holmes – often called “the voice of the civil rights movement” – with original compositions. The company’s three members, Justin Hicks, Kenita Miller-Hicks and Jade Hicks, sing together with sparing instrumentation. The simple set evokes something between an ancient temple and a Park Slope yoga class.
The tone of Waterboy is captured in the playing card waiting on my seat as I arrived, which bore the words: “There has to be understanding/A level of understanding.” It is oblique, and the meaning is not spelled out – but there is a depth of feeling that spills through. As implied by my quote (though each seat bore its own), that feeling is chiefly connected to one idea: the importance of, and the power of, a community.
It is fitting then that Waterboy is at its strongest when the three performers move as one. In the show’s latter half especially, the three Hicks begin to harmonize. Suddenly they are moving as a unit, feeding off each other’s energy. Their connection fills the room with a unique warmth, and a community spirit which extends from the stage, inviting the audience in. It’s a wonderful thing.
It also helps to make up for the show’s earlier sections, which are far more remote. Early on the songs are interspersed with pre-recorded spoken word sections. These feel distancing, as does the obliqueness of much of the lyrics. Meanwhile the show’s thematic and political throughlines never become clear.
From reading materials about the show, I now understand it was exploring the legacy of Bass Reeves, an enslaved black man who became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. To consider Reeves’ legacy in the context of law enforcement today is a fascinating topic, but I would have to study The Hawtplates’ lyrics closely to grasp the connections being made – they did not come across in the moment.
What did come across was a feeling – of a shaky community, strong if unsteady, disparate but powerful. I can’t say for certain if that community was simply the family on stage, all of us in the room, or something far bigger. The ideas are still forming, but the love is already there.