Hollow Roots is playing in the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. This beautifully written solo show, written by Christina Anderson and performed by April Matthis creates a poignant stagescape. A young Black American woman searches for a “post-race” society. The term “post-race” was used by mainstream America during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
This term implies that race no longer hinders a person’s opportunity to succeed in the United States. It also, some think, assumes that the United States has become color-blind and that our interaction with each other is no longer effected by race. This play asks, if that were true, what would we gain in such a world, and what would we lose? Is it possible to truly assimilate in mainstream society? By assimilating and not maintaining our culture, are we creating roots that, like the title suggests, are hollow?
In the spirit and tradition of solo performers like Spalding Grey, Wallace Shawn and Mike Daisey, Matthis sits on a chair in the middle of a platform. She wears a simple business suit and colored shirt – the attire of a paralegal. With quiet, dignified force she tells a story in a prose filled with metaphor and poetry. She takes us on a journey through an urban landscape, trying to find the answer to her question: Can someone live a life unaffected by race or gender?
Our heroine starts her quest by sharing details of her life, including that her mother taught her cello from the age of three through the week before she left home for college. It is in her music she finds solace and rest from her journey. At various times during the piece she hums and repeats the notes “G B A B D.” that echo in recordings we hear of a haunting cello. Matthis was so convincing that I completely forgot that she was playing a part and not regaling us with stories from her actual life.
On her lunch break from the paralegal job she happens upon a new fusion style restaurant where the seating is ”family style.” The hostess brings her to a long table of five strangers. She is reluctantly seated between what she refers to as The Talent (a jewelry designer) and The Dreamer (a writer). She decides to stay when she hears laughter coming from the kitchen and decides that she would like to consume that laughter for lunch. As she lunches she learns the stories of her tablemates. The writer believes that it is possible to live a fulfilling life without an “ism” dictating who she is.
This interaction sends our narrator on a pursuit to find a life unrestricted by race or gender. She walks us through a city, visiting different neighborhoods and exploring people with the same brown skin as her. She learns their stories, trying to find answers. When she becomes tired she looks into a fountain, sees her reflection and asks: What is your name? Where are you from? What is your story? The fountain did not give her answers. She does not find her own narrative.