0 6 min 2 mths

As soon as I stepped into the Atlas Performing Arts Center and saw the set of Mosaic Theater Company’s Nancy, I had no clue what I was about to experience. Just from reading the title, a million different assumptions whirled through my mind. Would this show be glorifying Nancy Reagan? Would it be a farcical buddy comedy about two unlikely friends working together to protect Native American tribes? Would it make Nancy Reagan look like some kind of hidden American hero no one knew about? I soon realized this show was so much more than that.

Written by one of the most commissioned playwrights in America, Rhiana Yazzie, a Navajo Nation citizen, Nancy takes place in Washington, D.C. in 1985. Nancy Reagan (played by Lynn Hawley) is “assisting” her husband, Ronald Reagan (played by Michael Kevin Darnall) in his presidential role as he battles ongoing illnesses. Nancy turns to the stars for guidance, getting spiritual advice on political moves from her astrologist, Joan (played by Regina Aquino).

In the meantime, Navajo mother Esmeralda (Anaseini Katoa) and her daughter Jaqueline (Tenley Stitzer) travel to Denver as Esmeralda advocates for the safety and stability of her Navajo community. There, they meet a team of self-proclaimed advocates, Whaley, (Derek Garza) Ed, (also played by Darnall), and Joey (Jen Olivares) who propose a plan to give funds, resources, and protections to the tribes they represent. As the stories progress, Nancy makes an unlikely discovery; she is a direct descendant of Pocahontas.

Anaseini Katoa as Esmeralda, Tenley Stitzer as Jacqueline and Derek Garza as Whaley in Mosaic Theater’s production of Nancy by Rhiana Yazzie. Photo by Chris Banks

The minute audiences step into the theatre, they’re immediately transported back to the 1980s. Several television sets hang overhead displaying MTV logos while old ‘80s radio jingles and commercials play through the speakers. A picture of Nancy and Ronald is projected on a screen with a large painting of Nancy’s face and body overlaying the image and stretching from the wall to the middle of the stage. Suspended above the center of the black box stage is a recreation of a Navajo sand painting, traditionally used in ceremonies by the Hatalii to strengthen the sick and absorb their illnesses.

The actors give mesmerizing performances throughout the entire show. Aquino provides much-needed comical relief as Nancy’s trusty astrologer and friend, Joan. Darnall successfully portrays Ed and Ronald, two men we love to hate, with confidence and charisma. Garza showcases his impressive range when tackling the characters of Don Reagan and Whaley, two men struggling to understand how to use their power to benefit others instead of their own careers. Olivares enchants audiences with her charm, grace, and captivating stage presence as Princess Pale Moon and Joey. Stitzer has us both laughing and crying as we relate to her loneliness and the emotional ups and downs that often accompany teenage life.

Hawley shines as she portrays a complicated and confident, but slightly scared and insecure, first lady. We watch her struggle to find the right answers to a myriad of problems thrown in the White House’s direction. Though the show and character are meant to be satirical, Hawley plays this role with the class and dignity needed to portray the complexities of Nancy, without glorifying or humiliating her to the point where the show and characters can’t be taken seriously. Our hearts break alongside Esmeralda’s as Katoa successfully portrays a passionate, fiery, and loving mother and representative of her community. She never fails to deliver laughs and utter sincerity during both the hilarious and serious moments.

Playwright Rhiana Yazzie finds unique and compelling ways to tell the stories of two completely different women from opposite worlds and finds surprising similarities to connect them. Director Ken-Matt Martin effectively uses the set and creative blocking to weave together significant elements of the story. While all of the scenes occur without any big set changes, we’re still transported to a myriad of locations, from Nancy’s dressing room to motel rooms and even to a live David Lee Roth performance.

Though this show works to provide a strong and friendly dose of ‘80s nostalgia combined with satirical comedy, it never strays from making the audience contemplate complex themes of culture appropriation, spirituality, ancestry, and greed through storytelling elements like multimedia formats, satirical comedy bits, and tons of rock n’ roll.

Final Grade: A

Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Nancy is now playing to April 21st at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington. Tickets range from $42 to $70 and are available at mosaictheatre.org.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission

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