Something is rotten in the state of Alabama in Marcus Gardley’s new play at Arena Stage, Every Tongue Confess—particularly in Boligee. The town is suffering through a litany of strange events—the temperature is 103 and rising, hailstones are falling and melting into the arid ground, and a string of churches have been set on fire. To make matters worse, ghosts seem to be lurking.
If that sounds like a stretch, suspend disbelief because this is no ordinary piece of theater. Part magic realism, part miracle play, part parable, Every Tongue Confess is a sort of epic theater-poem exploring sin, loss, and redemption. Few plays have been as eagerly anticipated in Washington’s theater season as this inaugural work in the Kogod Cradle, Arena’s designated space for developing new works. Tony Award-winning actress and beloved Cosby Show mom Phylicia Rashad stars along with a fleet of other Broadway regulars, and the director is acclaimed theater and TV regular Kenny Leon. The production is, to quote one character, “hotter than grits on Al Green’s chest.”
The play opens with three worshippers: an elder (Eugene Lee), a brother (E. Roger Mitchell), and a missionary (Crystal Fox). The trio are alternately singing and lamenting the heat when they realize the church they’re in is on fire. The elder wonders what to do (“Should I pray? Should I sing? Should I . . . gossip?”), before confessing that he knows who started the blaze.
That initial scene diverges into three main story arcs that come together in the second act. First, the mother of Benny Pride (Autumn Hurlbert) is shot in front of her, forcing her to live in a trailer with her boorish white father, Stoker (Jim Ireland). Mother Sister (Rashad), a reverend in the church and a spiritual healer, lives with her son Shadrack (Jason Dirden). And gravedigger Jeremiah, also played by Eugene Lee, uncovers a singing Bible and falls sick as a result.
Leon has gathered a stellar cast, and the show at its best is luminous. Rashad delivers a mesmerizing performance as the frosty reverend who thaws when she realizes God has sent her a miracle in human form (played by Jonathan Peck as Blacksmith). The three church worshippers switch into different roles effortlessly, and Autumn Hurlbert shines as Benny, literally struck dumb by grief and guilt. The bare-bones set is illuminated by clever staging effects, though flickering images of flames in the second act edge tend toward cliché.
Gardley’s script combines humor with raw, searing emotion. Through the prism of the ferocious heat, anything seems possible, and fire represents a dangerous force balanced only by its opposite element, water. In one scene, Benny’s stepfather, Bobby, declares that he wishes to be neither black nor white but “the color of water.” Mother Sister describes a sound as “like rivers of living water pouring over my heart.” If fire is burning passion, water is cool relief. Not quite a legend and not quite a ghost story, Every Tongue Confess fuses powerful elements of storytelling and myth with a cast that elevates it beyond either genre.
At Arena Stage through January 2. Tickets ($66 to $116) are available here.