Activist company

In Company One’s ‘can I touch it?’, a battle over the identity of a neighborhood and a family

We also care about the implications for Shay’s daughter, Ruth (Jada Saintlouis), who must make a big decision about college amid her family’s economic turmoil. And we care what that means for the future of Meeka (Schanaya Barrows), Shay’s high-spirited, media-savvy niece and employee. And we care about the cracks opening in Shay’s longtime friendship with fellow activist Mark (Mark W. Soucy), who shares her goals but differs with her on tactics.

Sharply observed and sharply written, with strong performances across the board, “Can I touch it?” rests on the kind of human consequences that underlie, but are often obscured by, the powerful forces of development and finance.

These forces are accustomed to getting what they want, regardless of the impact on a neighborhood’s identity. In “can I touch it?”

The playwright Da Silveira knows well the forms that racial inequalities can take. There’s the egregious kind, like the unfair lending practices banks have with black-owned businesses. And then there’s the everyday genre embedded in the obtuse and offensive question in the play’s title, the one some white people feel entitled to ask black people when it comes to their hair.

At periodic intervals, the action of the play pauses as Everett, Saintlouis, and Barrows face the audience and repeat variations on this issue. It is a measure of Da Silveira’s skill that the impact of these interstitial direct address scenes builds with each iteration, as the issue of dark hair politics gradually widens into a window on questions broader systems of systemic injustice.

Left to right: Chris Everett, Schanaya Barrows and Jada Saintlouis in ‘Can I Touch It?’Christian Ruiz

The connection between Da Silveira and his subject is palpable. Born in Cape Verde, she immigrated with her family to Boston at age 4 and grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester. In Company One press materials, Da Silveira says, “I grew up walking near the Strand every day, most likely chasing the #17 bus or the #15 bus. Four years ago, when I was working with C1 at the Strand, I remember saying some very bold words: “I’m going to have a play here one day”. (The playwright was present at Saturday night’s performance and received a well-deserved nice hand from the crowd.)

Like Kirsten Greenidge’s recent “Common Ground Revisited”, this is a very Bostonian piece, full of local references and driven by local issues. But while “Common Ground Revisited” traveled back and forth in time as it sought to re-examine the 1970s bus crisis through a contemporary lens, “can I touch it?” is fully rooted in today’s Boston.

Or almost: It’s set in 2019, when Patron Bank systematically buys up foreclosed properties in Roxbury and Dorchester while raising rents for black-owned businesses. High-priced condos invariably follow.

Now the bank is targeting a beloved neighborhood bakery that’s been empty since it filed for bankruptcy a decade prior. Shay, a community activist and owner of the nearby beauty supply store, throws herself into battle against the bank. “They won’t stop until they buy every inch along Dudley,” she says.

But Shay is being pressured by that same bank, which is reviewing her loan application and has just raised her store’s mortgage rate by 6%. If she drops her opposition to the purchase, will the bank approve the loan? Is this an implicit bargain she should consider, given the myriad of challenges (including Ruth’s tuition) she faces?

Everett makes Shay’s inside and outside fights compelling throughout, while providing a powerful center to the game. flight and finds its own strength. Soucy conveys Mark’s decency without going overboard with sweetness.

As a resourceful and fearless Meeka, Barrows is nothing short of formidable. A 2021 graduate of Salem State University, she’s a whirlwind, exuding energy and personality virtually every moment she’s on stage. (She’s also excellent as a haughty white banker pushing a “revitalization plan” for Nubian Square.) Late in the play, Barrows brings compelling force to a remarkable monologue by Meeka about the psychological damage women of color can suffer. when they try to live. to false standards of beauty.

In this scene, the upheaval takes on literal form in Shay’s store (the work of set designer Cristina Todesco and assistant set designer Eun Jeong Paik), where dozens of wig-covered mannequin heads are displayed on towering shelves (creative wig design is by Cassandra Queen, who also designed the costumes).

Company One’s production of “Can I Touch It?” is the first part of the “continuing world premiere” of the play by the National New Play Network. It is set to be produced in the 2022-23 season by the Rogue Machine Theater in Los Angeles and the Cleveland Public Theater.

On the first page of the script for “can I touch it?” Da Silveira wrote one of the loveliest dedications I have ever seen: “This piece is dedicated to bus number 15. I have never been so frustrated waiting for a bus at Dudley station. And I have never felt so much joy and relief when it finally happened.

Well, judging by “can I touch it?”, theatergoers don’t need to wait for Da Silveira to develop. This playwright has arrived.

CAN I TOUCH IT?

Play by Francisca Da Silveira. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Dramaturgy by Afrikah Smith. Presented by Company One Theater in partnership with the City of Boston Office of Arts and Culture. At the Strand Theatre, Dorchester. Until August 13. Tickets are “pay what you want”. Information at www.companyone.org.


Don Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.