I’m not going to pretend or lie – my plus one and I had no idea what we were getting into upon entering the tiny theater space on the fourth floor of Studio Theatre for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out. The lighting was reminiscent of a retro disco set from a movie taking place in the 1970s, and the performance area was surrounded by audience members. The four sides of the squared space were additionally flanked by sliding elevator doors, which automatically opened and closed, allowing characters to exit on all sides while providing mirrors for the audience and characters to look at.
Wig Out is about family within a marginalized culture, and the tragic, goofy, fun characters struggle with what the words “family” and “house” mean throughout. These houses aren’t built on last names, rather choices forced upon people forced out of their past lives because of who they are. These decisions to be part of units with like-minded individuals, even when they don’t always have your best interest at heart, are never easy even when they seem to be. And when these houses go head-to-head via “The Ball,” the stakes are high, and the results are beautifully poignant artistic performances, despite the occasionally cutthroat response from competitors.
At the heart of this tale full of balls, dances and unending flamboyance is a romance. Audiences begin this journey with Eric, The Red (Jaysen Wright) meeting Wilson/Ms. Nina (Michael Rishawn) on the train deep into the night. The latter immediately begins to hit on Eric in her drag persona Ms. Nina, but takes a more straightforward approach as Wilson when her advances are deflected, and succeeds.
After, Eric is sucked into a world he doesn’t understand, and eventually tries to embrace and absorb more and more as his feelings for Ms. Nina grow stronger. While this unfolds largely offstage, The House of Light preps for a battle of supremacy against the devious House of Di’Abolique for a ball at the break of midnight. Performances must be agreed upon, despite the trepidations of some of the family members.
Though the story poses the House of Di’Abolique as the primary antagonist, the most unlikable character belongs to the House of Light, as the house father Lucian (Michael Kevin Darnall) stands out amongst a group of largely enjoyable people by constantly belittling their opinions and actions.
Perhaps that’s the point – in this culture that a large part of society is ignorant pf, there will be questionable folks in every house, just like there are in every family connected by blood. With nowhere else to go, which characters repeatedly say out loud, they are left with the choice to venture out into a world alone or stick together, even when the situation is less than ideal.
Despite the colossal weight of the play, it is riddled with colorful vignettes, songs and dance, which constantly lighten the load for the audience. Even some of the heavier conversations are book-ended with delectable songs and dance by the Fates 3, essentially House of Light cheerleaders who help fill in the gaps. And the ball itself is worth the price of admission all on its own, as the music of hip-hop stars reverberate through the building during the spellbinding displays of acrobatics by both houses during the ball.
Wig Out is masterfully directed by Kent Gash, and can be seen at the Studio Theatre through Sunday, August 20. Check out tickets here.
Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org