Thousands, maybe millions of plays have sparkling premieres but lack the true measure of success: a second production by another company. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is making it part of its mission to ensure that great new theater gets its "sophomore" appearance along a path to greater visibility and appreciation. That strategy certainly looks promising with Marcus Gardley's Every Tongue Confess.
A hit after its world premiere last season at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Every Tongue combines magical realism with the sorry reality of American race relations. The up-and-coming playwright uses clever wordplay, rhymes, rhythm, songs and searing revelations to tell a story of pain and redemption. Gardley's principal metaphor is fire, as purifier as well as destroyer, but chiefly as the inner passions driving his characters.
Director Tre Garrett, who has a national reputation in various performance media, and his talented (if non-Equity) local cast present a polished, well-paced Every Tongue with its various intertwining storylines. In rural Alabama in 1996, an arsonist has targeted black churches. In Kentucky, a drug deal gone wrong ends up as a suicide awry. Characters are thrust into unlikely quests. Others lose, then find, love and hope.
Every Tongue provides some good scenery-chewing for the cast, and no one is more delectable than Chrystal Bates when she's in full testifying mode as a church minister and healer. Sparks fly between her and Vendell Nasir as the mysterious wanderer whose virility is not masked by his rough rags. Les Howard ably juggles two roles as a troubled grave-digger and as a member of a congregation-cum-Greek chorus, who is purportedly telling the tale that he and his fellow church members (Bria Walker and Jason Shavers) are trapped in. Tami Dixon mixes humor and pathos as an unlikely spirit.
Sometimes a tad heavy-handed, Every Tongue offers desperation, joy and some good laughs on the way toward a bumpy, mostly satisfying conclusion.