Let’s start with the title. B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching, a two-act play by Tara L. Wilson Noth having its world premiere run at Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is a mash-up of two phrases. “Broken bird” references Langston Hughes’ short poem Dreams, a favorite of several characters in the play. “Code switching” is a term in linguistics for when someone alternates between one language or idiom to another, typically in specific contexts, depending on where the person is and with whom the person is speaking (for example at work or with friends and family).
Let’s go next to the opening scene: A woman wearing a bathrobe cradles an infant in her arms. Urban life breaks out around her—a skateboarder, a bike messenger, a jogger, a working woman frenetically appear from the wings—as the baby’s swaddling unravels and we understand that the woman is experiencing the trauma of losing her child while life goes on for everyone else.
This woman is Olivia Bennett (portrayed by DeAnna Supplee), the play’s protagonist. She’s a successful, young lawyer who has ditched a high-paid job in a high-class law firm to work as a pro bono legal aid attorney. She hasn’t yet dealt with her trauma, though she doesn’t quite understand that yet. She’s a black woman married to a white man, Mark Bennett (Torsten Johnson), who holds a senior position in his father’s prestigious law firm, the son of an acclaimed female artist, whom we can safely refer to as privileged. Mark wants Olivia to move on from their loss and move forward with their life together, but she’s not ready to close that chapter. She’s also feeling increasingly uncomfortable with her friends, or, rather, her husband’s friends, and Mark’s assertions that his white social group is “color blind.”
We first see them together at a New Year’s Eve party, on a penthouse balcony. He’s trying to cajole her into a romantic evening; they wax nostalgic about their spontaneity in the good old days, before they had attained the material successes they now enjoy (and before they lost their baby). We can see that she’d like to surrender herself into his arms, and we can also sense that she’s holding back.
These opening tableaux set the scene for a wrenching tale of identity, multiple seductions, racism, a gross miscarriage of justice, self-sacrifice, social stratification, and awakening self-recognition. It’s an exceptionally well told tale, with uniformly strong acting, striking design, assured direction, and powerful writing.
The catalyst for the play’s action is another mother in crisis: One day, Evelyn Payne (Almeria Campbell) shows up at Olivia’s dreary, barebones office, pleading with Olivia to defend her son Deshawn (Justin Sturgis), a teenager accused of murder—a crime she says she knows her son could not commit—who is being held behind bars with hardened adult criminals. Olivia asserts that murder cases are beyond her expertise and that Deshawn would be ill-served by a lawyer lacking the necessary experience, but Evelyn persists, and eventually Olivia relents.
When Olivia meets Deshawn in prison, he stonewalls her. While it’s clear she wants to help him, he’s shut down; he barely looks at her, much less speaks with her, burying himself in a notebook, refusing to answer the most basic question: Did he do the murder or didn’t he?
That question remains open throughout most of the play, and while it’s the central secret that hooks the audience, other storylines arise as new characters enter the scene. Olen Porter (Jahi Kearse), a photographer with an easygoing drawl and languid self-assuredness, has gained permission from Evelyn to capture images of her family, including Deshawn in prison and in conference with his advocate, Olivia. At the same time, a beautiful new associate, Katherine Morgan (Rebecca L. Hargrove), has joined Mark’s law firm, and she has more on her mind than work.
The photographer, who insists he be called Porter, can easily communicate with Deshawn, whom he refers to by the teenager’s nickname, Razor (because he’s so smart). Olivia comes to understand Deshawn’s keen intelligence, creative nature, and future promise. But for the boy to trust Olivia, she must surmount the trappings of her life with Mark—she has to engage in some code switching to get back to her own roots and find common ground with the boy. They also find common ground in their mutual appreciation of poet Langston Hughes—particularly the poem Dreams.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot because this is a well crafted, emotionally affecting play built to unspool gradually and emotionally. What’s clear is that B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching is a powerful piece of theater that fires on all cylinders. The acting is brilliant, not a weak player in the cast. The scenic design by Baron E. Pugh effectively conveys place, class, time, and circumstance, transforming the Unicorn Theatre’s small, blank-slate stage from the upscale law firm’s offices and the Bennett’s luxurious, expansive apartment to Olivia’s bleak legal aid workspace and the desolate, claustrophobic jail to an oppressive courtroom. Skillful sound design by Michael Keck supports quick scene changes with potent background noises, as do projected images that also provide snippets of backstory and context (projection design by David Murakami). Wardrobe and prop choices say much about each character’s status—and even Olivia’s trajectory—thanks to adept, subtle costume design by Danielle Preston.
I don’t know whom to credit for the way the actors move, especially in the scenes of romance and seduction, but the movement is exceptional—at times slinky, sensual, and visceral, always realistic—likely reflecting superb work by intimacy coach Marie C. Percy along with masterful direction by Kimille Howard. In an interview, newcomer playwright Tara L. Wilson Noth explains that Howard took pains to assemble a predominantly BIPOC creative team. Her efforts have paid off in the sterling execution of this arresting theatrical exploration of finding the space to delve into one’s true feelings and address unresolved trauma along with the concept of being seen.
B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching was initially presented by Berkshire Theatre Group as a staged reading in 2019, going on to win a 2022 NEA grant. We look forward to seeing more work from everyone involved in this production, including newcomer playwright Noth and, especially, recent NYU drama graduate Sturgis, who delivers a heart-breaking portrayal of Deshawn with poignancy and pathos.
Berkshire Theatre Group’s world premiere production of B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching runs at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through July 9. Photos by Jacey Rae Russell.