Ochre House always takes me to unexpected places, and Justin Locklear’s Smile, Smile Again was no exception. Locklear expresses his deep intoxication with melodious, mellifluous language. It is a curiously involved, introspective piece that echoes Beckett and Shakespeare, in tone, content and approach. I am embarrassed to say it has taken me longer than it should have to write my critique, but sometimes you want so badly to do justice to the work, to get it right. Smile, Smile Again is unlike anything I’ve seen. Nuanced, obtuse, beguiling. Dreamlike but clear. The play opens with (as the program says) a Madman taking joy in the astonishing details of the day, though he finds himself on the battleground. Though not in the thick of warfare. He uncovers a hapless, African American Soldier, buried past his hips in the ground, unable to free himself. Their dialogue is a kind of wordplay, but more, an exploration of consciousness and perception. As the Soldier explains his need for extrication, the Madman is evasive, ingenious, glib. Essentially, he would free the Soldier if only he could.
A parade of characters comes along. A Charity Worker, Wice and Warz, a pair of soldiers, a Stranger. When the Charity Worker engages with the Madman, he is contentious and ungrateful. Like the others, his motives are not altogether obvious. Perhaps he is irritated by what this nurse represents, a kind of bourgeois band aid for human suffering. Perhaps he doesn’t want his companion uncovered and freed. Perhaps both or neither. Their sullen banter makes for a refreshing and jovial interlude in the midst of somber irony. Wice and Warz seem to reference the symbiotic connection between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Each asserts their existence by refuting the other one’s worldview, without a qualitative sense of self. They identify only by opposition.
Smile, Smile Again emerges from the predicament of the Soldier. I have to assume he is not African-American by random casting. Nor do I believe analogies to a flower, that’s tended and loved but can flourish so much, is likewise arbitrary. Like Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, he keeps waiting for something to rescue him, to put him on the path to self-actualization, only to be disappointed time and again. The ostensibly good-hearted souls he encounters bear him no ill-will, but explain they are helpless to save him. Does the onus of the Soldier’s captivity fall upon himself, or his would-be saviors? Locklear’s brilliance lies in his refusal to spell out these answers for us, or deal in the unmistakable wickedness of outright racism. By creating characters engulfed in this swirling soup of sad, exquisite insanity, this endless waking dream that seems to resist any cure for the feverish, inconsolable spirit, he takes us to a remarkable realm.
Ochre House Theater presents Smile, Smile Again. Written and directed by Justin Locklear. Playing April 29th-May 20th, 2017. 825 Exposition Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-826-6273. www.ochrehousetheatr.org