Review: Young love and privilege collide onstage in Berkeley

Review: Young love and privilege collide onstage in Berkeley

First love — or what feels like love at the time — comes for many so early in life that it’s wrapped up in young people just starting to figure out who they are themselves.

The play by Deneen Reynolds-Knott now making its world premiere with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, “Babes in Ho-lland” isn’t simply a love story — not that love is ever simple. It’s also wrapped up in layers of privilege that test its relationships at every turn.

The “Ho-lland” of the title isn’t the Netherlands but Holland Hall, one of the dorms at the University of Pittsburgh, during the cold, sunless winter of 1996.

The ’90s-ness is everywhere: the posters on the dorm wall in Ashley Mendez’s nicely detailed set, the corded phone, and especially the terrifically catchy riot grrrl punk and women-fronted R&B songs that pervade the production. (Earbuds also play a major part in the action, which seems plausible even if they weren’t yet as omnipresent as they would be a few years later.)

Sundiata Ayinde is friendly and upbeat as Ciara, a Black student at a predominantly white college, but she also seems withdrawn, keeping a lot inside. We first see her dancing with abandon and singing along to a Hole song turned up loud, but when her roommate enters and starts dancing too, Ciara gets self-conscious and sits and watches instead.

Played with often funny tempestuousness by Ciera Eis, Ciara’s white roommate Kat is all boots, black leather jackets and black nail polish. Kat and Ciara seem close, though a lot of that is just Kat oversharing about her tumultuous relationship with her unseen boyfriend. Still, they go out to clubs together and share at least partial taste in music.

Tierra Allen’s Taryn shakes things up as soon as she appears, staring so fixedly at Ciara as both wait to talk to a counselor that it may seem like Ciara’s done something to offend her. But they strike up amiable small talk that quickly becomes a friendship packed with awkward flirtation — shy on Ciara’s part and knowing but patient on Taryn’s part. It’s obvious that they’re into each other long before either one expresses it.

Ciara and Kat come from comfortably middle-class families, while Taryn is always struggling financially, and that brings out a lot of tension aside from the simmering sexual kind.

Taryn has no patience for Kat, which puts a strain on the roomies’ relationship. Kat’s unexamined preconceptions about Black people slip out and are immediately called out. Ciara’s presumptions about poor people create rifts in the relationship, as do the things she takes for granted that Taryn can’t afford to do. Taryn comes off as pretty clear-eyed about everything and is quick to point out displays of privilege or prejudice. Taryn really doesn’t get about half of Ciara’s musical tastes, though, as emblematic of the roommates’ ostensibly close friendship.

Shotgun’s world premiere has been in the works for a while now. A finalist for the 2020 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, “Babes in Ho-lland” had a workshop production at Shotgun in January 2022. The anticipation was palpable on opening night, with a boisterously appreciative audience cheering on the young lovers and oooing whenever a character said something they shouldn’t.

Director Leigh Rondon-Davis gives the play a lively staging propelled considerably by the dynamite soundtrack in Alex Fakayode’s sound design. With all the occasional mentions of how long it’s been since they’ve seen the sun, Kieran Beccia’s lighting almost become a character in itself. Jasmine Milan Williams’ costumes say a lot about the characters, from Kat’s riot grrrl gear to Taryn’s baggy coats and bright patterns.

As with many new works, there are still a few rough patches in the play. Some of the tastes of daily life in college that we get — doing laundry and whatnot — slow things down more than they add to the story.  A few scene endings are rather abrupt, and intermission falls at a surprisingly undramatic moment in the story.

On the whole, though, it’s a compelling portrait of love and longing that’s occasionally dowsed by embarrassing gaffes and hurtful comments like a splash of cold water. In that sense it’s also a deeply involving coming-of-age story, because the young characters still have a lot of stuff to work through lest it drive them apart.


By Deneen Reynolds-Knott, presented by Shotgun Players

Through: Feb. 10 (live streaming Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 and on demand Feb 14-21)

Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $10-$40; 510-841-6500,