Review: A Black Deb Ball Conjures Eerie Shadows in The Cotillion

Colette Robert’s new play about Black debutante culture opens off-Broadway at A.R.T./New York.

Aigner Mizzelle and the cast of The Cotillion at A.R.T./New York
(© Loreto Jamling)

Welcome to the Harriet Holland Social Club’s 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion. Here, the finest girls from the most prestigious families are plucked, painted, and primed to make their debuts as the newest members of an elite society. Armed with connections to wealth and a refined education in elocution and poise, they will show the world what Black female excellence truly looks like. Or is it just Black female acceptability?

In this rich new work (presented jointly by New Georges and the Movement Theatre Company), writer and director Colette Robert digs into the mess of hypocrisies and contradictions baked into this corner of Black culture. She also brings along the lively, fun, and flamboyant ambience that makes debutante events so ripe for the theatrical picking. Scenic designer Teresa L. Williams transforms the A.R.T./New York theater space into a moody 1960s throwback (the play is set in the modern day but these events are always aesthetically frozen in the Kennedy era). The room is speckled with chandeliers, floral centerpieces, and a classic bandstand, lit colorfully by Stacey Derosier. Kayla Coleman, Cherrye J. Davis, Cristina Pitter, and Montria Walker make up the evening’s entertainment as a fabulous quartet, evoking the spirit of the Shirelles or Chiffons (costume designer Mika Eubanks fittingly dresses them all in matching sparkling silver gowns). And choreographer nicHi douglas crafts perfectly anachronistic dance routines for our debutantes to perform for their scrutinizing audience (some African step dancing is also featured onstage during a particularly poignant moment).

It’s all fodder for the light comedy that opens the show, but as the evening progresses, The 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion — hosted by Miss Star-Burst 1997 and the current Harriet Holland President (Akyiaa Wilson), along with her well-meaning and grossly underappreciated society sister Corinna Davis (a very funny Jehan O. Young) — starts to collapse under the archaism.

Kayla Coleman, Montria Walker, Cherrye J. Davis, and Cristina Pitter
(© Loreto Jamling)

Robert has a list of gripes with Black debutante culture, and uses the members of her excellent ensemble to communicate each one: Dominique (Monique St. Cyr) twists herself in knots trying to meet the society’s requirement for manicured emotions, even in the wake of her mother’s passing; Melissa (Starr Kirkland) is brought down by her inability to achieve a Eurocentric body type; Lindsey (Aigner Mizzelle) is a queer girl, who, if not closeted, must at least conform to the heteronormativity of the evening’s festivities; Alicia (Portland Thomas) shows how far money and family legacy can take you in this exclusive world; Kim (Caturah Brown) shows how quickly this exclusive world will dump you if those shiny things get scuffed; and Shellie (Claire Fort), in all her sweetness and innocence, is introduced to the realities of colorism that may just work in her favor.

Each complication is aptly articulated and questions the value of an organization whose original intention was to bolster the Black community and prepare its members to succeed in a white world. To make every salient point, Robert often veers into the realm of speechifying and explicating rather than using her theatrical medium to draw out the complexities of an institution like the Harriet Holland Social Club. The play’s most memorable scene comes when the lecturing stops and a seemingly innocuous part of the ceremony turns into a ghoulish minstrel show with shadows of slave auctions and displays of female servility. It’s a turn that sneaks up on you in a way only theater can, and I wish that had been a bigger inflection point for the production as a whole. Instead, the play proceeds with flecks of surrealism inside pointed commentary about the intersection of race and gender in America. Much like modern-day debutante balls, this breeds some tonal inconsistencies. But even with these rough edges, The Cotillion makes a happy marriage of deep reflection and campy fun.

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The Cotillion

Closed: May 27, 2023