Deneen Reynolds-Knott Scores with Compassionate Queer Comedy
by Robert M. Gardner
Deneen Reynold-Knott’s realistic slice of college life will certainly resonate with Gen X and Millennials. Opening with the headbanging, screaming sounds of “Violet” by Hole, we meet two college Fresh Persons dancing and jumping wildly on their beds.
Soft-spoken Ciara (charming Sundiata Ayinde) and brash Kat (wild-eyed Ciera Eis) live in a dorm room festooned with girl band posters—advertising Hole, Babes in Toyland, and Bikini Kill. Both are bougie girls who rock out to 90s rebellious music.
Innocent, shy Ciara’s contrasts sharply with brash, over-bearing Kat, who chases a boyfriend and lives for parties. Ciara comes from a black, upper middle-class family and is trying to fit into the white, formerly private school, and high-priced school. Tough for poor kids to manage.
Caucasian Kat wears punk attire and is caught up in her self-centered world of gossip. She bonds with Ciara over their mutual love for bands that feature angry, screaming white women. Turns out that Ciara has more heart to offer . . .
At the Counseling Center, Ciara meets Taryn (spirited Tierra Allen), who challenges authority without hesitation. As a poor Black girl from Phillie, Taryn sees school as a way out—her Mom works extra shifts to keep her in school.
Despite their money difference, Ciara and Taryn love romantic R&B, like TLC’s “Diggin On You.” Each song they share deepens their connection.
Ciara and Taryn’s growing intimacy highlights their awkwardness and shyness. Their timid advances recall our own experiences with those first anxious connections.
The acting soars on the wings of subtle facial expressions. As Taryn, Allen’s raised eyebrows and eye rolls brilliantly express her doubts about hilarious middle-class attitudes. Taryn and Ciara’s emotions become palpable, as they slowly admit their attraction to each other.
When Ciara discloses their romance to Kat, we get a fascinating insight into privileged class jealousy and sexuality. Kat accepts Ciara’s coming out with a refreshing naturalness. But other problems arise anyway.
The dramatic conflict comes in Act II, when the three girls split across social class. When Ciara criticizes Taryn for using her credit card to get fast cash, we see the class gulf between them. Hypersensitive Taryn feels put down for lacking financial smarts.
Later, Taryn admits, “Deep down you were coming from a good place. Deep. Deep down.” Her apology reveals that their differences are about rich vs. poor values. Deneen Reynolds-Knott’s script has many memorable lines that reveal a mingling of race, class, and gender insights.
Sound Designer Alex Fakayode’s work is first rate. Listening to the soundtrack afterwards, I am impressed how well the songs fit the action. As Taryn and Ciara reconcile, they listen to Xscape3 singing, “Who Can I Run To?—the wish we all have in a lover.
“Babes in Ho-lland,” a groundbreaking play, is well worth a trip to Shotgun Players. Rather than a fantasy with a fairy tale ending, “Babes” leaves us with greater awareness, gentleness, and hope for a better future.
“Babes in Ho-lland” by Deneen Reynolds-Knott, directed by Leigh Rondon-Davis, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley. Info: ShotgunPlayers.org – to February 10, 2024.
Cast: Tierra Allen (Taryn), Sundiata Ayinde (Ciara), and Ciera Eis (Kat).
Banner photo: Sundiata Ayinde & Ciera Eis in their dorm. Photos: Ben Krantz