Playwright: Kristiana Rae Colon
At: Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; VictoryGardens.org; $20-$30. Runs through: July 29
As the lights dim, an announcer dedicates Tilikum to the "life, voice and struggle of indigenous peoples" and acknowledges that we sit on land forcibly appropriated from the original occupants.
Then, to a percussion score ( Coco Elysses, composer ), we observe a colorful sequence of animated projections ( wonderfully designed by Paul Deziel ) of orca whales and abstract geometrics closely associated with Pacific Northwest First Peoples ( Inuit, Tlingit and others ). We assume the play will be about First Peoples in some way, but it's not.
Instead, it's about a strapping male orca named Tilikum ( galvanizing African-American actor Gregory Geffrard ), taken into captivity for breeding and exhibition at a Sea World-like attraction, owned by a sarcastic white male identified only as Boss ( slickly loathsome Matt Fletcher, as the guy you love to hate ). Tilikum is partnered with three older females, represented by animated projections and percussion riffs. Through them, we learn a great deal about orcas: their elaborate social culture, language and close-knit family structure. Tilikum's trainer and show partner is Dawn ( quiet, nuanced Sigrid Sutter ), a young white woman who regards Tilikum as something akin to a lover.
I identify the race of the actorsnot my normal practicebecause it's important to understanding Tilikum. This world premiere by the always dynamic Kristiana Rae Colon is about slavery and not at all about the usurpation of indigenous peoples, at least not North American peoples who were not collectively enslaved.
The mixed metaphorthe percussion instruments used are of African origins, as another exampleis confusing and unnecessary: Just drop the opening announcement and let the story speak for itself without attempting to guide the audience's interpretation. Most folks will see Tilikum as a brilliantly-theatrical concept of what real-world captivity is like, especially for highly intelligent oceanic mammals, but they also will extrapolate to the human sphere based on casting and dialogue.
Director Lili-Anne Brown ( very in-demand these days ) smartly has put together Tilikum as if it were a musical, recognizing the song-like richness of Colon's language. She's well-served by choreographer Noelle Simone and fine scenic, lighting and sound designs.
Some theatergoers ( I was not one ) may know Tilikum was a real orca that died of natural causes last year at 36 years of age. ( Free orcas live 50-80 years. ) While in captivity ( for 34 years ), Tilikum was involved in the deaths of three humanstwo of them his trainers.