Jan Villarrubia's semi-autobiographical play Turning of the Bones was produced at an alternative theater space in Lakeview during the State of the Nation festival. It takes its title from the translation of "famadihana," a sort of burial celebration in Madagascar in which the deceased are disinterred and reburied amid a communal feast. It sounds like the kind of eccentric ritual that would thrive in New Orleans, but there's only a metaphorical connection with Villarrubia's text. At the drop of a hat, Cashmere (Donald Lewis Jr.) shares that his mother is from Madagascar with anyone listening. The play is set in New Orleans in the 1950s, and Cashmere works as a domestic worker for a white family and lives in the basement of their home.
The work is a memory play, and the past is forever in question. Villarrubia has characters object to her text itself, contesting scenes on the grounds they never happened or did not happen in the way they are being portrayed. Cashmere is a harsh critic of the narrative, suspicious that the production itself is an attempt to expiate racial guilt.
The main narrator, Kate (Lisa Shattuck), is a white woman who grew up in the house. She's obsessed with understanding her memory of growing up and how Cashmere fit into her family. To more fully evoke his importance, Villarrubia fiddles with the time sequence by introducing the Little Kate (Aja Becker), and the two Kates are frequently on stage together.
Grown-up Kate has more trouble than anyone with the course the play follows. This makes for a Rashomon-like uncertainty as to what's real and what's not. She rejects one scene by saying, "That is totally unfair. My mother would not talk like that."
One of Cashmere's talents is smoothing the feathers of ruffled family members. He has a genius for calming things down, but sometimes he hits the bottle and becomes confrontational.
One exchange sums up the play's core paradox of intimacy and inequality.
"You loved me, I know you did," Kate says to Cashmere.
"It was a job," he offhandedly replies.
The unpleasant truth or a cruel jab? Cashmere's anger is understandable. But it's hard to believe he didn't feel more than he admits. Maybe his own tender feelings for the family infuriate and embarrass him.
Under Ashley Sparks' direction, the supporting cast of Michael Zarou, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, Angela Papale, Jennifer Pagan, Claudia Baumgarten and Jurnee Scott contributed to a credible mixture of family and racial dysfunction. — Dalt Wonk