Subtext Is King in Mo`olelo’s Decent ‘Cell’

If you’re as perversely obsessive as I am (and you probably are), you’ll see what I saw at the end of Cell, Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company’s current world premiere. What’s left of central character Rene, shamed into mental and emotional collapse amid her job as an immigrant detention center corrections officer, has been shuffled off to a sanatorium. Her extremely delicate condition has shut down the most basic bodily functions, even things as insidious as an involuntary bat of the eye.

I mention this because during the entire four-minute scene, performer Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson didn’t even presume to blink. Not once. Hers is a marvelous turn at physical restraint on behalf of her character, and it mirrors lots of similar moments from all personnel. With her debut Mo`olelo piece, company artistic director Lydia Fort has crafted a meaningful story about people of color who exercise administrative reign over other people of color – while it does suffer from overuse of the performing space, Cell hits solidly on several issues surrounding class and race, with playwright Cassandra Medley cleverly melding anecdote and social commentary.

And then there’s Thompson, who’s once again in a bracket by herself.

Leon, Rene and Cerise (left to right, Vimel Sephus, Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson and Monique Gaffney) don't yet know that the danger they think they see is inside themselves. COURTESY PHOTOS

Leon, Rene and Cerise (left to right, Vimel Sephus, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Monique Gaffney) don’t yet know that the danger they think they see is inside themselves. COURTESY PHOTOS

Amid the grit of day, you won’t hear a peep of a complaint from her longsuffering character Rene, whose grizzled exterior softens when it comes to family. She’s just gotten jobs at the detention center for her kooky sister Cherise and Cherise’s idealistic daughter Gwen – and while all three recognize they’re responsible for keeping the peace at the venue, they also feel a twinge of simpatico for the facility’s racially displaced. Internal social unrest follows as the trio confront several far-reaching items of conscience, with Rene’s debilitation the striking result.

Cherise’s and Gwen’s recent homelessness; sexual abuse at the detention center; the facility’s absentee corporate ownership; toeing the boss’ imaginary line: Medley’s thought of all sorts of subtext to bring the story alive, not the least of which involves Gwen’s rapid climb up the ladder. The anecdotes are well-conceived and liberally referenced, with the real-life emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter and the upshot from the tragedy at Jefferson, Mo. not far from our thoughts. The beauty is that Medley gives us just enough suggestion of their intent without mentioning them per se.

Logistics do tend to suffer amid Fort’s use of dimension. The Tenth Avenue Arts Center sports a generous width, which can undermine a director’s choices on stage pictures amid a cast so small. The characters’ commitments to one another seem compromised at times against all that distance, and that’s especially true with Gwen and her live-in relationship with Rene’s boss Leon, confined as it is to one area of the stage (in any event, the pair’s connection is extraneous and leads nowhere within the story).

A distraught Leon (Vimel Sephus) has no one but the idealistic Gwen (Andrea Agosto) to lean on.

A distraught Leon (Vimel Sephus) has no one but the idealistic Gwen (Andrea Agosto) to lean on.

But the acting will out, with the day’s honors going to Thompson, among San Diego’s elite best performers. Meanwhile, I could watch local treasure Monique Gaffney, who plays Cerise, act all day. Andréa Agosto’s high-flown Gwen is fun to see as her 23-year-old character tries to assume an adult posture ahead of schedule, and Vimel Sephus’ jut-jawed Leon is a true company man, demanding perfection from everybody but himself.

This is also a good tech effort in light of a persistent glitch at this space: I kept looking at the ceiling searching for anything that might be tricking out the acoustics. Maybe it’s just me, but the venue’s notorious pranks with sound seemed strangely and blessedly absent this time. Even the recorded sociopolitical commentary in Lily Voon’s sound design was recognizable as such, and the shrillness to certain scenes never seemed out of hand.

Meanwhile, Cell has its problems, but the cast’s sense of ensemble and Medley’s powers of articulation aren’t two of them. This is a decent piece on sociopolitical dilemma, made less palatable only by the buttface sitting behind me, who kept wrapping and unwrapping food.

I know etiquette is a lost art in this country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t practice it. Sheesh.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Sept. 27. Cell runs through Oct. 18 at The Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 930 10th Ave. downtown. $35. (619) 231-4137,


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Mo’olelo Performing Arts
The 10th Avenue Theatre 930 10th Avenue San Diego CA 92101 USA Work Phone: 619-342-7395 Website: Mo\’olelo Performing Arts website
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