If no one is looking for you, are you really a missing person? Jonathan Payne asks this uncomfortable question with his new urban epic, The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd, now making its world premiere with the Playwrights Realm at the Duke on 42nd Street. It tells the story of Karma (Kara Young), a 17-year-old woman looking for her former foster brother, Terrell. He has gone missing inside the Oblong, a dense oval ghetto of poverty and decay. As she retraces his steps in the coldness of late December, we begin to suspect that no one is waiting up for Karma to return home. So what exactly makes Terrell lost and Karma found?
Terrell's last foster mom (Deonna Bouye) expresses her frustration that the police merely dismiss his disappearance as the typical behavior of "a shelter kid," while a missing white child outside of the Oblong receives wall-to-wall news coverage. "Outside the Oblong he's like a dead cat in the driveway," she observes about Terrell, "Just a sad thing. Poor f*ckin' cat! Shouldn't been creepin' 'round the car." The difference, she states, is a sense of tribal solidarity: Terrell is outside of the tribe of those with power, so his disappearance is seen as lamentable but negligible.
Payne (who is a social worker by day) gives a powerful voice to his unflinching observations about how American society is failing its most vulnerable children. He's sharpest when he takes aim at the cynicism of those who would seek to use the misery of urban poverty as a way to push the story of their own righteousness: There's the elderly public school teacher (Kenneth Tigar) who, despite the disappearance of white children and funding, stuck around, awaiting the day they rename the school in his honor. Even worse is funeral home proprietress Madam Profít (the falsely sweet and seriously salty Lynda Gravátt), whose moniker tells us everything we need to know about her objective.
As you might be able to tell from the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer character names, Payne is undaunted by accusations of Brechtian pretension: Actors directly address the audience to comment on the play, and helpful projections (by Lisa Renkel) tell us what will occur in each scene before it takes place.
While some viewers might find this style of undergraduate metatheater off-putting, the play keeps us engaged due to director Awoye Timpo's fully committed and tightly staged production. The actors of the six-person ensemble deftly play multiple roles on Kimie Nishikawa's versatile fold-out set. Andrea Hood's costumes convey a sense of status even through the bland layering of urban winter wear. Stacey Derosier's dramatic lighting and Luqman Brown's jitter-inducing sound design serve to create a world that looks and feels like a more mythic version of our own.
The play also benefits from an extraordinarily magnetic performer as its center of gravity: Young endows Karma with charisma and specificity, so that we come to care about her and her quest, even if we never completely understand it. Clad in baggy clothes and sporting a foul mouth, Karma could easily pass for one of the boys (and we get a sense that she prefers it that way). Inquisitive and brave, she's an ideal detective.
An anticlimactic ending purposefully leaves us with a feeling of frustration in our guts. It is certainly only a fraction of the frustration, though, felt by the people our government treats not as citizens, but as liabilities. Perhaps Terrell isn't missing at all, but exactly where centuries of neglect have meant to place people like him: out of sight and out of mind. Admirably, The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd refuses to allow us to forget that Karma exists.