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A Review of Small Planet by Dylan Lewis ‘22

As I watched Small Planet on its final night, I felt what playwright Dylan Lewis ‘22 describes as a “blooming” in my chest. I watched as four Black femmes, Erielle, Dee, West, Jade, and Corey dreamt up, workshopped, and avoided creating a new world. Tasked with presenting a pitch for a new world at a leadership conference, these femmes work within themselves and alongside one another to imagine a world beyond their own. Entirely white with silver adornments, the costumes in Small Planet, designed by Mali Dandridge ‘22.5, complement the afro-futuristic mission at hand. As the characters work on their pitches, the costumes seem to question the place of whiteness in their imagined worlds. Together the femmes play, fail to be productive, bicker, and reveal their own unique subjectivities and desires. In the playwright’s statement, Lewis describes their friends that inspired Small Planet, writing: “We were (and sometimes still are) extremely unproductive but we were (and definitely still are) raucous, overjoyed, and brimming with aliveness.” Just like Lewis’s friends, the characters indulge in spontaneous bits, conspiracies concerning the schemes of the world, and in one another. 

Played by Teniayo-Ola Macaulay ‘25, Jade is a leader, a self-elected one, but a leader nonetheless. Struggling to focus the group, Jade at times gets lost in their daydreams herself, ultimately presenting an impassioned monologue about The Bachelor as her pitch. Based on a close friend of Lewis, Dee is an optimist, bringing pure joy to the stage as they rap their earthly gripes and innermost interrogations. Dee is brought to life by Millicent Stiger ‘24, who pairs their musical talent with poignant reflections on the selfhood of gender-expansive Black femmes. Like Dee, Erielle, played by Aida Sherif ‘22, is playful and desires a calm world to kick back and experience life as it comes. And yet, Erielle is neither childish nor naive. Liberated from the respectability politics, Erielle rejects that she is unserious, affirming the desire of Black femmes to experience life outside of obligation and expectation. Played by Sonna Obiorah ‘22, Michelle is a facilitator at the leadership conference and condemns Erielle for her playfulness. In the words of Lewis, Michelle serves “respectability politics realness.” Ultimately, even Michelle chaotically frees herself from these expectations in a spontaneous and humorous dance number. West, played by Dori Walker ‘24, is guarded, and at times a cutting, expression of Black femmes’ subjectivity. Unlike the other two, West seems afraid of interrogating her own observations and grievances with the world, almost in fear of it may unlock. Constantly in conflict with West, Corey is pensive and shares her random reflections with the group in monologues like “Thomas Motherfucking Jefferson.” Lewis identifies this pensive reflection to be the central conflict between Corey and West: “Corey is always moving but West is just trying not to think about things. Corey is buzzing, humming, and that just irritates West.”

The characters’ imaginative journey is punctuated by the stomps of a mysterious, veiled blacksmith, seemingly setting their actions in motion. This blacksmith, played by Faith Hardy ‘23, is later revealed to be God Onearth and edits the world as it progresses. The edits of this dissatisfied creator set the plot in motion as she hands Erielle a note simply saying “connect.” This command triggers the communal, introspective journey of the characters.  When I asked Lewis about this deceptive character, they simply said “I love a good trickster.” Alongside the stomps of the blacksmith, are dances that seem to complete this small world of Black femmes, articulating a specific corporal condition through affective movement. These dances, however, were not originally written into the script. As explained by Lewis, the dances came out of one rehearsal: We were just stretching and listening to music and I played the song “Get Free” by Mereba. I told them to move to the song and Dori took center stage and started dancing her ass off. and I was just like oh you get a dance number. And other things just layered themselves in from there.”

Similar to the dances, some of the most striking moments in the play were improvised. One of these moments was first articulated by Stiger in rehearsal, where they explained how they feel like a Black woman, but not a woman. In the play, as all the characters lay daydreaming on the floor, Dee shares this wisdom. At this moment, West affirms Dee, telling them that she understands. When I asked Stiger about how they had come to put this identity into words they said: “I think the vibes around that particular part of the play really helped me to place words to my feelings. I’m surprised how many people said that they felt the same way because I feel like my explanation was so vague, but it really is the best way to explain how I feel right now in terms of my identity.” 

While the final product came together beautifully, playwright Lewis was dissatisfied with the original script, feeling that the world she had created had fallen flat. Ultimately, Lewis chose to disrupt this world, weaving their own life into Small Planet. After a phone call with a friend, Lewis realized that the world she had created was void of her own subjectivity, specifically concerning her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Not wanting this to overtake the plot, Lewis reserves this subjectivity for West’s final monologue. Here the audience finally begins to see the complexities that shape West’s hostile disposition. This monologue came to Lewis unexpectedly: “West’s monologue came to me in the middle of the night at 2 am and it all poured.” This, however, is not the only ending of the play, the second being an epilogue where Lewis addresses the crowd. Lewis partly did this simply because they “love a good trick.” More importantly, Lewis “wanted to tell people that this is not just pretend and this is not just make-believe. Black girl magic is real. The longing, the sadness we feel is real. This play is not solely for the imagination; it comes from feeling.” This feeling Lewis describes was felt most strongly when the actors asked the Black femmes in the audience to raise their hands. After raising my hand, I received a purple carnation from Obiorah. In this exchange, they reminded us all that the other-worldly magic they created on stage was one we always carry, create, and sustain as Black femmes. 

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