Metro Weekly

‘The Sensational Sea-Minkettes’ Steps Lively (Review)

Woolly Mammoth's "The Sensational Sea-Minkettes" kicks off with a sensational first half but doesn't sustain its fine form.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes
The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes – Photo: Woolly Mammoth

Vivian J.O. Barnes’ sharp-edged comedy The Sensational Sea-Minkettes plunges deep into the hearts and psyches of its titular all-female team of dancers at an unnamed historically Black college.

Woolly Mammoth’s world-premiere production, directed by Taylor Reynolds, starts stronger than it finishes, but, throughout, the vivacious cast rarely misses a beat hitting the hilarious highs and crushing emotional lows of Barnes’ enigmatic narrative.

Leading the ensemble, Billie Krishawn leaves a powerful impression as team captain Shanteé, a senior Sea-Minkette knee-deep in her first season wielding the clipboard as crew leader. Shanteé speaks quietly but leads loudly with poise and confidence, getting her ladies into formation for an upcoming half-time performance at Homecoming.

The team does most of its practicing in the stands of the school football stadium, rendered by scenic designer Paige Hathaway as a steep bank of aluminum bleachers topped by field lamps, looming over a patch of green turf.

Exquisitely designed to suggest your local HBCU stadium, and the set of Beyoncé’s legendary HBCU-themed Homecoming concert performance at Coachella, these metal stands are where the play’s fictional universe and real life converge. That’s especially true for Beyoncé-obsessed team member Kiki (Sabrina Lynne Sawyer).

Guided by the empowering voice of Queen Bey in her head, Kiki might be merely applying healthy tools of self-motivation, or she might actually hear voices that she chooses to believe are “Beyoncé.” Sawyer’s nuanced performance intrigues, as we question Kiki’s sanity, while she maintains the appearance of being the most calm, attentive Sea-Minkette.

Not at all calm, team members and besties Racquel (Kalen Robinson) and Gabby (Khalia Muhammad) bring brazen attitudes and disruptive energy to dance practice, along with a prospective routine set to their provocative original song, “Pussy Pop.” Robinson and Muhammad also provide much of the show’s laugh-out-loud comedy, not to mention some smooth dance moves.

In keeping with the play’s intent to poke at a variety of issues faced by all young women, and Black women, specifically, even lighthearted characters Racquel and Gabby add serious takes on sexual agency and slut-shaming to the pot of hot topics the playwright’s stirring.

Rounding out the crew, disciplined senior Maya (Kimberly Dodson), former team leader, seems overwhelmed trying to complete her thesis, and newbie Aleyse (Lauren Fraites) is buckling under the pressure of living up to the Sea-Minkette legacy built by her mom and grandmother.

All the ladies’ problems and concerns loom over Shanteé’s efforts to tighten up their dance routine. Breathe pretty, she tells them. “No one wants to see all that panting.” Sea-Minkettes are held to a standard of always epitomizing elegance, effortlessness, and elegance. No one must see the struggle.

That’s a powerful theme on the conditions of womanhood, one of many themes that Barnes introduces organically to a story that gradually unravels, as fun and friendship give way to vague mystery and creeping existential dread. No concern looms larger over the Sea-Minkettes than the unexplained absence of two team members, Nikki and Dionne, who never show up to practice. And the mystery only deepens in the days leading up to the Homecoming performance, with the sudden disappearance of other team members.

We see enough to wonder about the unfortunate possibilities — abuse, abortion, eating disorders, or suicide — but answers aren’t forthcoming, as if the girls are vanishing one by one into a void. All Shanteé can do is keep asking, and decry the total lack of response from authorities and school administrators, expressing the common frustration that missing persons of color stay missing.

Still, it’s clear something untoward is happening. And in case anyone didn’t already get the picture, Barnes has Shanteé announce that the existential dread she feels is creeping closer. But what happens as the pressure builds? The play seems to get lost in the mystery, swinging on loose threads into a vision of the afterlife, or an alternate dimension, where some Sea-Minkettes find themselves.

Reynolds stages these scenes in pitch-dark lighting, with the performers in a shallow pit at the foot of the stage, where, from my seat in the rear orchestra, they couldn’t be seen at all. Their disembodied voices thus carried the Sea-Minkettes’ story towards its uncertain conclusion, while I watched the back of a patron’s head bobbing to the beat.

The Sensational Sea-Minkettes (★★★☆☆) runs through March 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Tickets are $34 to $94, with a limited number of pay-what-you-wish tickets available for each performance. Visit


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