Clare Barron’s play, Dance Nation, currently making its West Coast premiere at Moxie Theatre, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and at first, it’s hard to see why. For a bit, the play seems to focus on the quest of a group of adolescent girls (and one boy) to win a national championship. But, just as “ho-hum” is settling in, the play does a sharp turn and starts to focus on the thoughts and feelings of the individuals in the group. From there on in, the play becomes not only interesting but vital.
A group of Ohio teens are taking dance classes from Dance Teacher Pat (Daren Scott, in full smarmy, manipulative, mode). The group has been competing throughout the Mideastern states with a goal of making it to the nationals in Tampa Bay. They have been doing well, but Dance Teacher Pat senses that they will need to step up their game in order to add more trophies to the studio’s bulging collection. He comes up with a “social justice” theme for the competition dance, focusing on the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. This is, perhaps, the first clue that we are not going see a typical “overcome the odds to win the prize” story.
As preparations for the competition progress, the dancers move to the fore as individuals. Two emerge as rivals: Zuzu (Joy Yvonne Jones), who Dance Teacher Pat has cast as the “spirit of Ghandi,” and Amina (Wendy Maples), who consistently wins individual awards for her dancing from the judges, and who Dance Teacher Pat clearly regards as most likely to succeed at turning professional.
But, of course, both young women have a significant problem. Zuzu’s is a helicopter mother (Sarah Karpicus Violet). Amina’s is that she is not succeeding at masturbation, perhaps because she is so focused on working on her dance form that she’s ignoring the rest of her life.
Similar kinds of problems affect the other dancers (Farah Dinga as Connie, Li-Anne Rowswell as Maeve, and Sandra Ruiz as Sofia), including hurt feelings, concerns about relationships and popularity, expressions of sexuality, and the confusion that adolescence brings. These concerns come out in monologues, intimate conversations, and sometimes “bitch” sessions. Luke (Eddie Yaroch), the one boy, has similar concerns but finds less direct ways of expressing them.
In fact, the play more or less abandons the quest for nationals and makes caring about the welfare of the dancers its primary objective. And it works, in ways that tug at the heart far more genuinely than any “dance as sport” story ever could.
Moxie’s production casts no adolescents in a play that is mostly about teenagers, and that decision, under the guidance of Director Jennifer Eve Thorn, yields a rich level of performance that both honors the characters’ feelings but doesn’t wallow in them. She’s abetted nicely by Reiko Huffman’s clever set design that leaves lots of room for movement, features the requisite mirrors, but also can be converted easily to suggest other venues. Kate Bishop’s costume design, Nate Parde’s lighting design, and Lily Voon’s sound design each does its part to help the actors given the right performances in the right physical and emotional space.
Both surprising and satisfying, Dance Nation provides the kind of detailed look at U. S. culture that the Pulitzers like to honor. And, Moxie’s fine production both surprises and satisfies as well.