The Duality of Homecoming Dreams and Dread

Issue Five: The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes
Kayla Randall
February 20, 2024
Kayla Randall

Kayla Randall is a writer, editor, and appreciator of great storytelling. She is an editorial specialist at NPR focused on journalism ethics and standards and media literacy. She enjoys teaching workshops on the crafts of writing and editing.

An HBCU dance team dreams of creating a standout half-time performance at homecoming — but the dread gets in the way.

That element of disturbance in The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes surprised me.

The new play, written by Vivian J.O. Barnes and directed by Taylor Reynolds, began its run this month at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Woolly Mammoth’s description of the world premiere play is: “The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes are days away from their homecoming half-time dance performance and the pressure is on. The student body, the administration, the alumni, their families — everyone is expecting perfection. As the big day creeps closer, the women must contend with flaring tempers, bodies pushed to their limits, and what it means to be a team…”

After I read the premise and saw the playbill image with the cast looking ready to put on a homecoming show, I expected to see a warm story about dancers having big dreams while overcoming everyday adversity together. I didn’t expect the palpable dread throughout the play. As an audience member, I’m glad The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes gave me both the light and the dark.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The play delivers that warm vision of team dynamics. Watching this cast of characters is a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes. They have their own unique relationships with each other, some supportive, some uneasy, and the actors make every interaction compelling and lively. The six main dancers we follow are perfectionist Shanteé (Billie Krishawn), tense Maya (Kimberly Dodson), Beyoncé-obsessed Kiera (Sabrina Lynne Sawyer), unsure Aleyse (Lauren Fraites), and fun-loving best friend duo Gabby (Khalia Muhammad) and Racquel (Kalen Robinson). The dancers’ connection is the heart of the show, and their banter and shenanigans are enjoyable throughout.

But the duality of this play is that it also delivers dismay, with the team’s fear, anxiety, and stress seeming to manifest in the form of malfunctioning stadium lights, shredded uniforms, and disappearing dancers.

At times, the play is a funny and heartfelt comedy about a dance team. At other times, it is a drama about the pressures the team faces, from Maya worrying about her thesis to Aleyse wondering if she has any ability to dance at all. And sometimes, the surreal nature of the strange occurrences in the play made me question what was really happening. Were the frighteningly faulty stadium lights only symbolic of the increasing angst of the characters, or were they truly broken? Maybe the answer is both.

Ultimately, the show is a reflection of the highs and lows that come with striving for a level of performance that seems beyond ourselves. Flawlessness is out of reach, yet the dancers work and try anyway. They experience joy and laughter, and genuine terror and utter exhaustion. They all need catharsis, like we in the audience do too. By the show’s end, there is a sense of both relief and release for the Sea Mink-ettes and the viewer.

I appreciate that the story isn’t always straightforward. It’s challenging in a meaningful way. Homecoming doesn’t come the way I thought it would. Before seeing it, the culmination I had built in my head was a triumphant group dance at homecoming, with each dancer accomplishing all that they had been working toward. The play had other ideas. I liked how expectations were subverted there. When a story goes in a different direction than I anticipate, in a good way, it leaves me with much more to consider.

Contemplating The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes has me asking, why do we do what we do? Why do we hurt ourselves to achieve? Is it possible to achieve without suffering? And is the hard work always worth it in the end? Chasing dreams and excellence matters. But sometimes the chase becomes too much. Excellence can’t save us. It can’t protect us from pain.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

To me, the show is not trying to answer those existential questions for everyone, but rather depict how they play out among this specific group of dancers. The show presents ideas, it doesn’t preach them. That kind of storytelling feels relatable, and true to the human experience — some questions don’t get, or need, answers.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes has various themes to ponder: Conflicting personalities coming together for a common goal. The trying and often fruitless pursuit of perfection. The connection, whether intact or severed, between the mind and body.

The theme that resonated with me the most is the power of acknowledging and addressing our dreams and our dread. The show made me feel the importance of being honest about what I want and don’t want, feel and don’t feel, the kind of honesty that Kiera expresses during the conclusion. It’s that aspect of honesty in the play that I admired and enjoyed, and that has stayed with me.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes is playing now through March 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in D.C.

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