Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
Everyone has their own story worth sharing, right? After all, theater in its purest form is storytelling. In Random Acts, Renata Hinrichs shares her personal narrative of growing up under the roof of a Lutheran Minister who is an active advocate for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, she lives on the border line between whites and blacks in Chicago, which puts her and her family in harm’s way on more than one occasion.
Hinrichs is raised in an accepting household and does not understand discrimination and segregation. Much of her story focuses on her childhood where she learns about the harsh reality of her times, especially the horrific day of Martin Luther King’s assassination. She portrays her mother, father, and other community members, giving us a holistic view of her childhood. Most of her story stays in this time period and is largely effective. We are genuinely moved several times by her childhood anecdotes.
By and large, I do not enjoy one-person shows, as I have trouble listening to a singular voice for an extended amount of time. To Hinrichs’ credit, I remained engaged for most of the show. Yet, Hinrichs seems to be too aware of the potentiality to lose her audience if she remains physically and vocally stagnant for long stretches of time. Therefore, she and her director, Jessi O Hill, over-compensate for this risk by having her move around the stage excessively. While it is true that movement can be effective in keeping the momentum of a piece going and the audience engaged, it is also true that excessive physical action can detract from the power that derives from planting yourself in front of an audience and compelling them to just simply listen to your story. There is power in stillness and I wish Hinrichs would trust that she is “enough” and doesn’t need to fill her performance with extraneous movement that appears unmotivated and contrived. Good lighting and sound design can enhance the mood of a scene by effectively creating emotional depth when used judiciously, but here, again, it seems to be too much. Sometimes less is more, and Hinrichs is strong enough by herself and doesn’t need to rely on bells and whistles to keep us engaged.
The unfolding of the story feels awkward. Hinnrichs opens the play by sharing her memory of having an interracial teenage relationship when such things were seen as “taboo”. But then it abruptly switches gears and delves straight into her childhood, where she spends the majority of her 75-minute play. When she finally returns to the opening memory, it has lost much of its emotional impact, as too much time has elapsed and too many other events have occurred between the beginning and the end of the play. Sadly, this makes it come off as a convention rather than a tightly woven narrative account.
While introducing new devices and themes can be a strong choice for maintaining audience engagement, Hinrichs’ decisions to use music (some of which she sings, some of which she lip-syncs) seems like a writer trying to be clever rather than a dynamic way to move the story along, which is what I think Hinrichs’ real intention is. Sadly for her it doesn’t quite work, adding another layer that falls flat rather than enhancing the audiences experience. For example, Hinrichs lip-sync’s to Julie Andrews’ Sound of Music, and while she is conveying that Andrews was a childhood idol of hers, It goes on too long and doesn’t enhance the overall impact of the story. It’s a “cutesy” moment that detracts from the through line and the power of the piece.
Yet, all this aside, there is power that comes from claiming ones story and owning it. When Hinrichs does this, there are moments where we are in the palm of her hand and are glad to be there. Hinrichs needs to trust in her storytelling prowess, strip it down, and then just “stand and deliver”. When she lets the story unfold simply, without cluttering it with unmotivated sound and movement, the beauty and profundity of her story is felt perfectly. Her story is compelling and can hold its own without needing all the “extras” that are being forced into it. Hinrichs perspective growing up as a white child in a heavily segregated community in Chicago is special and deserves to be told. We are able to walk alongside her and experience things as she did. That alone makes this a gripping piece of theater. Hinrichs is likeable and genuine, which are assets to the honest strength of this her story. It’s already there, Hinrichs and her director just need to get out of the way and let it shine without pressured interference.
Random Acts plays now through March 2, 2019 at TBG Mainstage Theater 312 W.36th St. web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10345959