Review: Company One Asks the Right Questions with 'can i touch it?'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 12, 2022

The live performances for the Boston leg of the national rolling world premiere of Francisca Da Silveira's new play "can i touch it?" are wrapping up with the Aug. 13 performance at the Strand Theater in Dorchester's Nubian Square, but the streaming version of the play will remain available until Aug. 28. Here's the question to ask right now, though: Is it worth getting in to see the last of the live shows, or, alternatively, streaming it online?

"can i touch it?" is a raw and powerful work that asks fraught questions around community, gentrification, and the country's increasingly hostile climate. Those queries take the form of time-stopping, meta-narrative bending interrogatives posed by the play's main cast. Shay (Chris Everett) is the owner of a beauty shop in what used to be Dudley Square, now renamed Nubian Square. The name might be new, but the struggling businesses face the same old problems that have put many of the neighborhood's mom-and-pop (or just mom) establishments out of business. Shay's shop is one of the latter — mom only, since her husband died — and with Patron Bank (which owns most of the neighborhood and is keen to acquire the rest) having raised her mortgage's interest rates, Shay's on the verge of turning out the lights.

But she's not going into that not-so-good night quietly. Shay attends community meetings, along with her best friend Mark (Mark W. Soucy), hoping to drum up support against the bank's encroachment. It's an uphill battle, with the bank having the financial resources to literally buy the community's good will (or, at least, acquiescence), despite the way it snaps up foreclosed businesses and plans extensive new housing that will further upset the area's already-tilted economic balance.

But Beth — the bank's slick spokesperson, who styles herself a proponent of the neighborhood — is at those meetings, too, and her unctuous manner and empty rhetoric deflect and deflate Shay and Mark's efforts at every turn.

Shay's the sort who won't ask for help, no matter how desperate things get. She has the passion, but not the sometimes-reckless edge of her niece Meeka (Schanaya Barrows), who's also employed at her shop. Shay is also preoccupied with how to best provide for and guide her daughter, Ruth (Jada Saintlouis), who's almost ready to go to college... a local university where she can get a full scholarship, Shay hopes, and not the expensive liberal arts school Ruth's got her eye on.

Meeka, too, has other opportunities that could take her away from the neighborhood. A partnership in Somerville run by Mickey (Soucy, in another of the three roles he plays; he also portrays an infuriatingly patronizing loan officer) has already benefited from Meeka's savvy, and could use her talents as a stylist.

With the bank's seemingly unstoppable real estate schemes ongoing, the shop on the verge of failure, and the community not responding the way she hoped it would — emblematically, one of the play's secondary characters is both a customer and an employee of the bank — Shay has to face the possibility that there won't be a happy ending to this story... not unless someone comes up with a way to rewrite the terms of the narrative, that is, and shift the focus of what it means to succeed. But will that mean making a deal with the corporate devil, or possibly even sinking deeper into compromise — a state in which, as Shay points out, her community already perpetually exists?

The title refers to Black women's hair, but also to the play's ambitions, which are to braid social and political concerns into a story about family and community. Who has the right to claim ownership to a neighborhood, or to take charge over the problems and prospects of a community — and, by extension, its culture? Is asking for help, or accepting it, surrendering too much agency? And of all the questions that swirl as ordinary people try to clear away the obstacles placed in their path and achieve a life that rewards their labors, which are the right answers to pursue, and when?

Company One's co-founding Associate Artistic Director Summer L. Williams directs the work, with Cristina Todesco delivering another impressive, story-serving set stocked, to pleasing effect, with an array of wigs that serve as a visual metaphor for the problems, and the questions, that might seem too numerous to address.

This being the first stop on the play's rolling national premiere, it might well be the case that Da Silveira will continue refining it. Some sharpening of the storylines and tightening of the dialogue would not be amiss. Thematically, and in terms of plot and characterizations, there's little to be improved on, though, and as it is "can i touch it?" remains a potent work of theater.

The answer to that earlier question, by the way — should you see it? — is an absolute Yes. It will certainly touch you.

"can i touch it?' continues until Aug. 13 at the Strand Theater in Dorchester. The play's streaming version will remain available through Aug. 28. For information, tickets, and to access the streaming version, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.