In the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally and the subsequent attack on peaceful counterprotesters, the firm belief that black lives matter is perhaps more important than it has ever been. As such, the long-term work being done at the Vortex Theatre to bring diversity to the Austin stage, and to provide a voice and a venue to artists of color, is more important than ever.
The latest show at the Vortex, produced by Gale Theatre Co., is Tyler English-Beckwith’s new play “Twentyeight.” Though ostensibly an Afrofuturist science fiction story about six black people forced to build the very spaceship that will take them to their promised utopia of the Liberian Space Station, “Twentyeight” is also a trenchant commentary about contemporary state and racial violence against the black community.
Set in either a dystopian near-future or an alternate present, “Twentyeight” embodies the struggle for survival and freedom faced by black Americans in the form of forced labor to build a new starship. In exchange for this labor — which is overseen by mysterious “Enforcers” who make themselves known in the form of loud klaxon alarms — the individuals building the starship will be allowed to board it when it launches for the space station.
The bulk of the play portrays the struggles faced by the six characters as they work on the spaceship, arguing among themselves about the roles of freedom, yearning and expectation. The talented ensemble — consisting of Kenah Benefield, Jeremy Rashad Brown, Mae Rose Hill, Delanté Keys, Taji Senior-Gipson and Oktavea Williams — embody the various sides of debates about whether it is necessary for minorities to crouch before they are allowed to fly, and the well-realized desires and beliefs of each character keep that from ever becoming simply intellectual.
Though the ideas (and ideology) of “Twentyeight” are part of the show’s great strength, some of the science fiction concepts are a bit muddled and confusing, perhaps intentionally so. Nevertheless, the staging of the action by co-directors English-Beckwith and Matrix Kilgore (aided by the work of lighting designer Rachel Atkinson, sound designer Alyssa Dillard and scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon) grounds each scene in a physical reality that expresses the emotional truth of the characters, even if the precise location of the action is unclear.
“Twentyeight,” like much of the work at the Vortex, is a necessary show for our contemporary moment, giving voice to ideas that need to be heard by more people if our society is ever to find its way to the stars.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 16-19
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.