“Rastus and Hattie” is a two-act comedy by Lisa Langford presented by 16th Street Theater as a radio play, accompanied by illustrations by Roy Thomas. The first act centers on two robots—inspired by a 1930 design from Westinghouse of brown-skinned automatons, and voiced wonderfully by Colin Jones and Jasmine Bracey—programmed with the memory of generations of African Americans. The duo are rediscovered in a garage and their new masters, the oh-so-very white and clueless Marlene (Kate Black-Spence) and David (Ryan Kitley), think it makes perfect sense to present them to their best—and only—Black friends, Malik (David Goodloe) and Needra (Krystel McNeil). Suffice it to say this does not go over well and the ensuing conversations alienate the friendships. The second act takes a radically different turn, with Malik and Needra transported to late-nineteenth century Alabama. Tagging along with them are the now-liberated Hattie and Rastus, who provide timely tips on how to act and behave in this post-slavery time.
This play works on many levels, in large part to the talents of McNeil and Goodloe. Their chemistry serves a steadying presence throughout the production. The radio adaptation also benefits greatly from Roy Thomas’ simple but arresting illustrations which frequently capture the characters at the moment of their existence. Director Lanise Antoine Shelley also does a fine job of weaving the many moving parts into a cohesive whole.
“Rastus and Hattie” is designed to push the listener out of their comfort zone and, for the most part, it succeeds. It also serves up quite a few relevant life lessons along the way, although the first act suffers somewhat from the sheer obliviousness of Marlene. She is the ultimate “Karen” and some of the moments involving her are simultaneously a little too painful to be funny and a bit too absurd to be insightful.
The second act dives deep into an array of big ideas which ultimately resolve in the closing moments. One idea is about Needra’s work as an epigeneticist, isolating genes affected by trauma that are passed on to offspring. Needra believes that it might be possible to erase the collective memory of slavery and other racial injustices, past and present, endured by Black Americans. The hope then is that this mass forgetting will help facilitate a complete healing of collective ancestral wounds. Her trials and tribulations in the not so distant past, as well as her conversations with Hattie, lead Needra to a different perspective where past trauma is no longer viewed as an obstacle but a bridge forward.
Through October 24. Tickets at 16thstreettheater.org or call (708)795-6704×107. $5-$30.