“Sandblasted” begins with a woman buried in the sand, and you immediately think: Beckett’s “Happy Days.” She doesn’t remain buried, though, and another woman pops up out of the sand next to her, and just as soon as she does, her arm drops off.
Losing body parts, we learn, is a common occurrence in the world created by playwright Charly Evon Simpson, which is why the two Black women, Angela and Odessa (Brittany Bellizeare and Marinda Anderson), seek out Adah (Rolonda Watts), an older Black woman whose body parts have stayed intact, which has turned her into a celebrity.
I feel obligated to tell you what happens in the play, but, to paraphrase a famous description of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” nothing happens, several times. They travel to her; they travel with her; she travels alone – some of it (confusingly) told in flashbacks.
“Sandblasted,” which is being presented at the Vineyard Theater in a co-production of Women’s Project Theater through March 13, is deliberately abstract, a metaphor, or several metaphors – specifically for the stresses on Black women, but also for life during the pandemic…and more generally, the losses that come with aging and the 21st century American individual search for wellness. As Odessa puts it: “herbal tea and going vegan and going paleo and trying meditation and getting massages and cryotherapy and spin classes and kale and quinoa and oat milk and giving up cheese and ignoring it and obsessing about it we tried, we tried one more thing…” (Should I be embarrassed that this in many ways reflects my own journey?)
As in much of Beckett’s work, Simpson’s play requires patience, and depends on good acting to bring out the humor in what is otherwise a grim, apocalyptic scenario. Directed by Summer L. Williams, the actors deliver. Rolonda Watts is best known as a talk show host, which feels apt since the playwright compares Adah in her stage directions to Oprah. But Watts makes the character her own, and is especially mesmerizing in a monologue about Adah’s rise from suffering to survival and celebrity. Bellizeare and Anderson, portraying newly met strangers, settle into a dynamic that makes them feel like the kind of best friends that draw people to them (in this case the audience.) The production is also impressively designed (kudos to Matt Sanders for his realistic sandy beach and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo for his dreamy clouds) and colorfully costumed by Montana Levi Blanco
Still, for all of its appeal, the production by the end of its 100 minutes felt too long, too repetitive, too vague. I don’t know what it says that the most concrete scene involves a fourth character Jamal (Andy Lucien), Angela’s brother, trying to pick up Odessa at a bar.
The vagueness comes as a surprise, considering Simpson’s “Behind The Sheet,” the play for which she is best known. It is grounded in the true history of the doctor in the antebellum South who made a medical breakthrough in gynecology by experimenting on enslaved Black women against their will.
I understand that the playwright is trying for something else here. But she seems to have a gift for documentary, even when she doesn’t intend it. “Sandblasted” includes a conversation about Ukraine. Odessa explains to Angela that there’s a city with her name in Ukraine, “a beautiful seaside tourist destination… which has all these catacombs, all these hidden paths underground.”
At Vineyard Theater through March 13
Runtime: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $26 to $103
Written by Charly Evon Simpson, directed by Summer L. Williams
Scenic design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan, dramaturg Nissy Aya, casting director Kelly Gillespie
Cast: Marinda Anderson, Brittany Bellizeare, Andy Lucien, Rolonda Watts