Dawn L. Troupe as Ellen in Oakland Theater Project’s production of Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts by Kathleen Collins. Credit: Carson French.

Once again, the Oakland Theater Project (formerly, Ubuntu Theater Project) is producing first-rate theater practically out of thin air — in the parking lot of the Flax Art and Design store in downtown Oakland. In a COVID-era take on the drive-in movies of yesteryear, the audience watches the 90-minute, no-intermission, live presentation through the windshields of their cars while listening through their FM radios.

Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts was written by the late and sadly little-known Kathleen Collins (1942-1988), an African American, Sorbonne-educated civil rights activist, turned filmmaker and playwright. The quartet, ably co-directed by Dawn L. Troupe and Michael Socrates Moran, explores the inner life of an intellectual, artistic Black woman.

In the first play, The Remembrance, the audience seems to interrupt a woman who is at home alone (the excellent Dawn L. Troupe). She is turning a bedroom dresser into an altar. In a prayerful soliloquy, the woman expresses her struggle to get through her life, busy with her husband and children — a life that leaves little room for herself.

The deftly written drama, The Reading, is about a conversation between two women in a Black psychic’s waiting room. A white novelist (outstanding Margherita Ventura) and a Black fashion designer (Dawn L. Troupe) first engage in the nervous small talk one might expect. Then, when the women reveal personal information, the conversation quickly becomes tense in nature. The psychic can only meet with one of the women. Which woman will get her reading?

In the somewhat confusing Begin the Beguine, an unnamed young man (great work by Leon Jones) and a mysterious older woman (Dawn L. Troupe) meet on a park bench. Their relationship is unclear, perhaps familial, and perhaps transcendental. They dance and sing in a style that may illustrate their freedom and captivity in a white world.

The final drama, The Healing, takes place in an apartment where a younger white healer (effective Benoît Monin) is “laying hands” on a slightly older Black woman (Dawn L. Troupe). The woman needs to be healed but questions him and resists. A peculiar yet intimate relationship unfolds about the nature of healing.

There seems to be a biographical nature to these plays. Collins was an intellectual, mother, and wife who succumbed to breast cancer at age 46. Happily, Collins’ daughter is committed to preserving her mother’s literary legacy, including the restored version of her 1982 film, Losing Ground. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is now streaming Losing Ground in a free online presentation as part of its Black Life film series.

Begin the Beguine is playing at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through July 3 at The Flax Building parking lot, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. All tickets are sold only in advance for $25-$35 per car, depending on the number of people in the vehicle; priority tickets with reserved parking spaces are $50; a limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets ($5–20) will be available for every performance. All tickets will be sold exclusively online until two hours before each performance.

Audiences can also enjoy the show at home by live stream at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 19, or on demand for three weeks after the performance. Livestream and on demand tickets are $15-$25.

Dawn L. Troupe as The Woman in Oakland Theater Project’s production of Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One-Acts by Kathleen Collins. Credit: Carson French.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...