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In the rocky landscape of Thirst, nostalgia isn’t salvation

Three distinct responses to the havoc of loss circle one another in playwright C.A. Johnson’s searing war show, Thirst, set in a postapocalyptic southern landscape of food rations and militarized watering holes.

For dogged and pragmatic Samira (Tracie Taylor), the past is something you can always keep at bay with a big enough gun. Vulnerability is the enemy of survival. Living in pine woods outside a failed state is both her way of keeping safe and an effective means not to get bogged down in what she had to leave behind her when the world crumbled.

Less willing to move on is Terrance (Gregory J. Fields), a Black revolutionary leader and Samira’s ex-husband. You learn gradually what drove the two apart, but Terrance, who’s gotten power-drunk lately, isn’t a forgetter. Known locally as Well-Man for his and his men’s dominion over that precious resource, he’s acquired the kind of direful sway that makes him oblivious to what’s salvageable in life and what’s not, and he wants Samira back. He refuses to realize that not only does Samira not love him anymore, but she couldn’t go back even if she did because ultimately, there’s no “back” to return to. What sustains her now is her new wife, Greta (Laura Resinger), a white woman, and their adopted son Kalil (Saniyah As-Salaam).

If Terrance represents nostalgia’s vices and Samira stands for putting the hurt to bed as best you can, Kalil occupies the middle. He’s a child of the war. There’s no world for him without blood in it, no past either to avoid or reclaim, only a present which promises nothing. But that nothing includes growing up, making friends with the soldiers, games of tag around the campsite. In one beautiful speech, As-Salaam reaches a hand as high as it will go, remembering what it was like to hold his birth mother’s hand. And he smiles! There may be a huge crack in the world, but what’s famine and mortality to a happy kid?

As-Salaam is an amazing talent. Director Andrea J. Dymond’s cast is strong top to bottom, although only one of them seemed especially concerned with portraying his character as a southerner. I have admired Johnard Washington’s acting before, but I was utterly delighted by his performance as Bankhead, Terrance’s reasonable right hand. Washington brings so much style to this role, so much calm authority, that you often don’t know whether this incredible knowingness about people is his or the character’s. I wanted to sit there and listen to him dress down everybody’s flimsy self-justifications all night. Bankhead alone, the wise comedian and friend, seems to blame the war for everyone’s grief—while they go on blaming each other.  v

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