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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Shepsu Aakhu. At: MPAACT at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $16-$32. Runs through: Nov. 20

The course of true love ne'er ran smooth back when Shakespeare made his observation. Enlightened citizens in 2016 may congratulate themselves on their progress in striking down barriers once impeding marriages of like minds, but with that progress come new obstacles no less perilous.

The cards are stacked against classmates Jarrod Wintercastle and Rayna Hall from their first meeting at a high school dance in their rural Midwestern town. Jarrod lives with his single mother on the shabbier side of the railroad track dividing the town geographically and socially, and Rayna with her affluent family on the other. Jarrod is African-American and Rayna is Anglo-Saxon White. Their parents initially disapprove of the friendship, but grudgingly tolerate it.

Following graduation, Jarrod seeks his fortune in New York City, while Rayna departs for California's Stanford University. Jarrod's mother consoles her heartbroken son, reminding him that young love may flower again in maturity. Fifteen years later, the comrades encounter each other again, this time in big-city corporate surroundings. Oh, and by the way, Rayna Hall is now Ryan Gilroy.

It is at this point that Shepsu Aakhu's play diverges from others of its genre in making its story not that of how Rayna became Ryan. ( In this MPAACT production, Rayna is played by a cisgender female actor, and Ryan—comfortably settled in his new gender identity—by a cisgender male. ) Jarrod is the one who struggles to reconcile his memories of the past with the evidence confronting him in the present—to ignore physical appearances ( "I'm not gay!" he warns Ryan ) and rediscover his connection with the person he once loved. ( Jarrod's conflict is not solely psychological—his workplace frowns upon fraternization between the ranks. ) As the men look back on their youth, their very language echoes the confusion and uncertainty presenting the last obstruction to fulfillment.

Much of the action in this 90-minute narrative occurs in parallel time, with Sierra Buffum and Kejuan Darby's Rayna and Young Jarrod simultaneously occupying the same stage space as Jerico Bleu and Keith Surney's Ryan and Older Jarrod, in addition to assorted caricature-free antagonists, all underscored by Red Clay and Desta Sound's guitar-and-percussion musical subtext. Lauren Lundy's deft direction keeps audience members aware of the issues under discussion in Aakhu's fluid environment—notably, the necessity of fleeing toxic environments and finding your own path before embarking on a journey along another's road—and for playgoers who still don't get it, the O'Jays "Now That We Found Love ( What Are We Gonna Do With It )" sends us home to contemplate the prejudices that continue to delay deserving pilgrims their just rewards.

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