While Book-It Repertory Theatre might be known for adapting novels to the stage, it seems appropriate that in their production of Returning the Bones, playwright Gin Hammond’s one woman performance of her remarkable aunt’s experience as a female black medical student, would push some of its own boundaries as well. While Hammond is currently working to write Returning the Bones as a novel, this marks Book-It’s first transformation of oral literature, directed by Jane Jones, a trend that has certainly gotten off to a good start.
The narrative follows the young life of Dr. Carolyn Beatrice Hammond Montier (Bebe), from her childhood as the daughter of an African-American doctor in Jim Crow Texas, to her own experiences as a medical student travelling through Europe on a prestigious research fellowship. The breadth of history the story touches on is remarkable, Bebe meets Lyndon B. Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even, obliquely Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps more remarkable however is that every one the the show’s 28 characters is played delightfully by Hammond herself. This fact, coupled with Hammond’s physical acting ability, leads to a surprisingly humourous audience experience despite the subject matter of the play.
The main conflict of the story comes onto the stage in the second half, when Bebe must decide whether to stay in a much more egalitarian (though, despite what the narrative seems to suggest, historically speaking, far from utopian) Europe to finish her schooling, or to return to her home in Texas where racial violence seems to be escalating rather than receding. Despite Hammond’s engaging acting, and the fantastic work of lighting designer Reed Nakayama, which jointly and convincingly transformed the barren stage into a variety of different locations, the memoir-based narrative still drags at times, however the quality of performance and the (unfortunately) enduring relevance of the message saves the show from ever slipping into boring territory.
Book-It’s Returning the Bones runs through April 14 at the Erickson Theatre in Capitol Hill (limited parking available). Tickets and more info here.