Roaming Charges
June 21, 2013
The Rogue in Detroit Repertory Theatre, Reviews, new/original plays

“A poem should not mean/But be.” This succinct closing couplet of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” could double as the thesis statement for the fluid Roaming Charges by Ralph Accardo, now in its world premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre. Although this carefully constructed fable of poets and poetry raises its share of compelling issues, these occupy a largely thematic space in director Charlotte Leisinger’s interpretation, which seeks above all to approvingly draw out the lyricism in a voluble, very-free-verse text.

The play begins with a conversation between an older white woman, Kate (Leah Smith), and a young black teen, Lacey (Kristin Dawn-Dumas), when the latter comes over to use the former’s backyard swings. The two are by turns open and secretive as they get to know each other’s wounds and boundaries — Kate’s empty nest, Lacey’s dissatisfying home life, and the unspeakable terminal illnesses that touch both. But they are closest bound by the childhood activities that the younger teaches the elder, like the proper form for swinging and jumping rope, and by the poems about Kate that Lacey produces, which are preternaturally sophisticated for a girl her age. As their relationship strengthens, encouragement and praise begins to take on a tenor of surrogate parenting, in which Dawn-Dumas’s precocious open-endedness has an intriguing manipulative undertone, and Smith is believably swept up against all better angels as a salve against the hollowness of her grief. Meanwhile, elsewhere in space and time, a published black poet and academic (Chevonne M. Wilson) strives alone against unseen forces — within and without — to recapture the voice that once made her a prodigy and to get hired for better reasons than infuriating tokenism.

The reminiscent stories play off each other on designer Harry Wetzel’s idyllic fairytale set, which places the functioning central swings before a verdant impressionist background. Although the play professes to take place here and now-ish, there’s a deliberate otherness to the surroundings (reinforced with sublime perfect-afternoon lighting by Thomas Schraeder) that makes them appear generically timeless. Costumes by Judy Dery are similarly nonspecific, deferring attention away from time and place and onto the exchanges that are just as devoid of anchoring particulars. The overall effect induces suspended animation for the nearly enclosed poetic world of Kate and Lacey, one in which the cadence and repetition of words and phrases holds just as much weight as what the characters say.

But where Act I sketches the lines of this story, Act II provides the shading, revealing context about the characters that puts Lacey’s talents into a startling new light. Fascinating questions of race, duplicity, obligation, and proprietary ownership hurtle to the foreground, but these are not easily answered, and the show is content to present them without much comment. As Wilson’s role takes new precedence, the actor assuredly strides into an abruptly comprehensive character to suit the demands of the text. The reversals and overlaps are made keenly effective by Accardo’s use of refrain and Leisinger’s deliberate mirroring; however, it’s notable that while verse can achieve such evocative effects in mere syllables, the dialogue here commands entire sections of intertwining, circuitous language. Conversations sometimes tailspin into mile-long tantrums that pour from a seemingly limitless verbal spigot, stretching the play’s running time to well over two hours. While the words and their use are decidedly important, it’s a tall order to expect a show as conspicuously artistic and meditative as this one to sail on the wind of its own preciousness for such a long duration.

Much of this Roaming Charges is lovely, which is crucial in a production in which the fact of its loveliness seems to be its chief purpose. The play’s intent is not efficient storytelling, but rather the marvel of words and the pure beauty of their use, misuse, and concealment. To question whether the playwright could have accomplished more with less might be to attack the poem of the play, which flourishes in this telling and voyages at its own pace.

Roaming Charges is no longer playing.
For the latest from Detroit Repertory Theatre, click here.

Article originally appeared on The Rogue Critic (
See website for complete article licensing information.