In Francisca Da Silveira’s “can i touch it?,” the pressures of gentrification and the challenges of keeping her beauty supply business afloat are converging in a kind of pincer movement on a Roxbury entrepreneur named Shay (Chris Everett).
The strong-willed Shay is not the type of person to easily succumb to either. But will their combined weight be too much for her?
One of the strengths of Da Silveira’s impressive new play is that she makes us care about the answer to that question.
We care, too, about the implications for Shay’s daughter, Ruth (Jada Saintlouis), who has to make a big decision about college in the midst of her family’s economic turmoil. And we care about what this means for the future of Shay’s high-spirited, media-savvy niece and employee, Meeka (Schanaya Barrows). And we care about the fissures that open up in Shay’s longtime friendship with fellow activist Mark (Mark W. Soucy), who shares her goals but differs with her on tactics.
Trenchantly observed and sharply written, with strong performances across the board, “can i touch it?” is grounded in the kind of human consequences that lie beneath, but are often obscured by, the powerful forces of development and finance.
Those forces are accustomed to getting their way, no matter the impact on a neighborhood’s identity. In “can i touch it?,” now debuting at the venerable Strand Theatre in a production by Company One Theatre that is vigorously directed by Summer L. Williams, Da Silveira wants us to ponder the cost of the city’s acquiescence.
Playwright Da Silveira is savvy about the forms racial inequity can take. There’s the blatant kind, such as the unjust lending practices banks practice with Black-owned businesses. And then there’s the drawn-from-daily-life kind embedded within the obtuse, offensive question of the play’s title, the one some white people feel entitled to ask Black people when it comes to their hair.
At periodic intervals, the play’s action stops as Everett, Saintlouis, and Barrows face the audience and repeat variations on that question. It’s a measure of Da Silveira’s skill that the impact of these interstitial direct-address scenes builds with each iteration, as the matter of Black hair politics steadily widens into a window onto larger questions of systemic injustice.
The connection between Da Silveira and her subject is palpable. Born in Cape Verde, she immigrated with her family to Boston at age 4 and was raised in Roxbury and Dorchester. In Company One press materials, Da Silveira says: “I grew up walking by the Strand every single day, most likely either running after the #17 or the #15 bus. Four years ago, when I was working with C1 at the Strand, I remember I said the very audacious words: ‘I’m gonna have a play here one day.’” (The playwright was present at Saturday night’s performance and got a nice and well-deserved hand from the crowd.)
Like Kirsten Greenidge’s recent “Common Ground Revisited,” this is a very Boston play, chock-full of local references and driven by local issues. But whereas “Common Ground Revisited” shifted back and forth in time as it sought to reexamine the 1970s busing crisis through a contemporary lens, “can I touch it?” is entirely anchored in the Boston of today.
Or very nearly: It takes place in 2019, when the Patron Bank is systematically buying up foreclosed properties in Roxbury and Dorchester while raising rents on Black-owned businesses. High-priced condos invariably follow.
Now the bank is targeting a beloved neighborhood bakery that has been empty since it filed for bankruptcy a decade before. Shay, a community activist as well as the owner of the nearby beauty supply store, throws herself into the battle against the bank. “They won’t stop until they’ve bought up every inch along Dudley,” she declares.
But Shay is being squeezed by that same bank, which is considering her loan application and has just raised the mortgage rate on her store by 6 percent. If she abandons her opposition to the purchase, will the bank approve the loan? Is that implicit bargain one she should consider, given the multitude of challenges (including Ruth’s college tuition) she is facing?
Everett makes both Shay’s inward and outward battles compelling throughout, while providing a powerful center to the play. The layered portrayal of daughter Ruth by Saintlouis (a student at Northeastern), conveys a clear sense of a young woman coming into her own and finding her own strength. Soucy conveys Mark’s decency without straying into saccharine excess.
As the resourceful and dauntless Meeka, Barrows is simply terrific. A 2021 graduate of Salem State University, she’s a whirlwind, exuding energy and personality virtually every moment she is onstage. (She is also excellent as the haughty white banker pushing a “revitalization plan” for Nubian Square.) Late in the play, Barrows brings riveting force to a remarkable monologue by Meeka about the psychological damage women of color can suffer as they try to live up to false standards of beauty.
In that scene, the upheaval takes literal form in Shay’s store (the work of scenic designer Cristina Todesco and assistant scenic designer Eun Jeong Paik), where dozens of wig-covered mannequin heads are arrayed on towering shelves (the creative wig design is by Cassandra Queen and Ashley “Saturn’' Cooper, the team that also collaborated on the costumes).
Company One’s production of “can i touch it?” is the first leg of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” of the play. It is slated to be produced in the 2022-23 season by Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles and Cleveland Public Theatre.
On the first page of the script for “can i touch it?” Da Silveira has written one of the most charming dedications I’ve ever seen: “this play is dedicated to the number 15 bus. Never have I been so frustrated waiting for a bus at dudley station. And never have I felt such joy and relief when it finally came.”
Well, to judge by “can i touch it?,” theatergoers don’t need to wait for Da Silveira to develop. This playwright has arrived.
CAN I TOUCH IT?
Play by Francisca Da Silveira. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Dramaturgy by Afrikah Smith. Presented by Company One Theatre in partnership with the City of Boston’s Office of Arts and Culture. At Strand Theatre, Dorchester. Through Aug. 13. Tickets are “pay what you want.” Information at www.companyone.org.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.