“Essence” Examines Race Relations, Gentrification and Solidarity

by Josh Sandler

“Essence,” a senior project written and directed by Micah Rabang, is an emotional and insightful examination of race relations, gentrification, and solidarity. Taking place in South Africa during apartheid, the one-act play was shown in the Humanities Theatre between Oct. 19 and Oct. 21.

“Essence” tells the story of a young indigenous South African woman named Lily, who died when her house was burnt down. Now a ghost, she remains bound to the house until she can find peace. When a young white woman named Mae moves into the home after its reconstruction, she and Lily form a bond. Mae slowly learns about the erasure of the indigenous tribes that once lived there, and comes to terms with her own connections to that erasure.

The way that Rabang evokes the ethereal nature of the play is visually inventive. Using curtains and backlighting, silhouettes dance along the sides of the stage, seemingly present but always slightly out of reach. Ensemble members assist Lily’s ghost as a supernatural presence inside the home. Orange and red lights flood the stage during the fire, while the spirit engulfs the house in bright white light. With very little, “Essence” manages to create an effective atmosphere.

Kaché Mumford embodies the rage, disappointment, and pain that Lily feels with intensity. Arguably the most important performance in the play, Mumford brings an emotional energy that makes its themes all the more resonant. Alison Eadie’s Mae is passively ignorant to the realities of the past, but still has good intentions. Although she becomes more knowledgeable by the play’s end, Mae is never unsympathetic.

The ensemble is choreographed with intent. They move and connect to create a greater, metaphysical whole. Every movement is handled gracefully, connecting Lily’s actions and emotions to the physical realm. The play’s incredible atmosphere is largely due to their performances.

Narratively, “Essence” explores its themes well, never forgetting the complexities of its subject matter. The lead characters are written earnestly, and their story is filled with powerful emotions. Loss, realization, fear, and anger swirl in a relentless whirlwind as Mae comes to understand the mistreatment that Lily has suffered. The play acknowledges the white occupation of indigenous people’s lands, while also demonstrating what one can to do recognize the ways in which white people benefit from taking up said space. In both aspects, the play succeeds.

With Hawaiian roots, the erasure of indigenous cultures is something important to Rabang. Inspired by the events of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, he knew that writing about this subject was something that he was not only interested in, but something that was important. Educating himself on the indigenous South African tribes, he wrote “Essence” in the hopes that it would lead to a deeper understanding of cultural failings and a brighter future. Noticing a lack of theatre addressing cultural erasure, Rabang wanted to remedy that with his senior project. “Essence” is an original and compelling senior project that all involved should be proud of.