by Michael Buzzelli
When Farrah (Cynthia Caul) meets Maya (Elexa Hanner), a homeless teen, in the park, it sets both women on a trajectory towards a heartbreaking future – for this life and the next – in ‘”Pyramid Builders,” a new play by Karuna Das.
There’s a lot going on in this play. The first act is about Farrah and Maya and their connection in 2012. The second act is about Satya (Hanner in a dual role) and Octavia (Karla C. Payne) and her lover Cassie (Caul in a dual role) in the near-future where white militias roam what’s left of the United States, indiscriminately slaughtering Black people.
“Pyramid Builders” is built on the premise from the 2018 Pittsburgh billboard, “There are Black People in the future,” and the ire it caused here in the recent past.
The play posits that if people are so angry about the billboard, surely they must not want Black People in the future. History repeats itself when Octavia becomes another Harriet Tubman, smuggling Black people away from roving gangs of white militia men. In this future scenario, she’s a mule transporting people OUT of America and INTO Mexico.
Director Bianca LaVerne Jones gets some fine performances out of all of her actors. The cast is terrific.
Hanner is a charismatic lead. She dazzles on the stage, creating layers upon layers for her two, very distinct characters.
While Payne has only a minor part in the first act, she rules over the second act. Deftly sharing the lead with Hanner.
Caul’s Farrah is a harrowed CEO in the first act, and her role as Cassie is reduced in the second act, but she does a superb job in both roles.
Patrick Conner is perfectly cast as both Quinn and Teller. The historian and teacher gets to use all of his professorial skills spouting dialogue about ancient mythology, astronomy, archeology and anthropology.
David Ogrodowski and Brendan Piefer round out the cast playing a variety of bad guys. Both of Piefer’s characters have a jingoistic tag line, twisting an American motto for evil intent. Both men are frightening, even the normally affable Piefer. At one point, the two men don black robes and featureless face masks – it’s the stuff of nightmares.
Scenic Designer Richard H. Morris Jr. set could have easily been constructed by Cosmo Kramer. “Levels. You know…like ancient Egypt.”
While the cast is terrific, there’s too much story in “The Pyramid Builders.” Act one and act two are two separate plays. Das has filled the play with pile of scientific concepts. The characters chatter about ancient Mayans, Egypt and other mythologies. They muse about astronomy. There’s also a political discussion. The second act hinges on a nightmare scenario where – though the Orange A-Hole is never named – Trump wins the 2024 election.
Act one is a sad tale about mental decline and homelessness. Act two, a sci-fi dystopia is heartbreaking in its own way. Act one needed a little more time to breathe. The connection between Farrah and Maya was tenuous at best. It strained credibility that these two random women would have such a deep connection.
But act two is a fascinating dystopia. “The Pyramid Builders,” like Certs breath mints, is two in one. Either act one or act two could have stood on their own. Together it’s a bit jumbled. It’s just a little too much story in one play.
In the final moments, there is hope. The audacity of hope. It’s a resounding theme that the show could use a little more of – and, frankly, hope is something we all could use – in ample supply. It’s also a reminder to vote. Yes, there are Black People in the future, but let’s make it a fair, equal and equitable future for everyone.
“The Pyramid Builders” runs from April 14 to April 30 at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA. For more information, click here.