May 1, 2024 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Dance, Performance Art, Theater

REVIEW: Wonderland Reimagined: Underland X Alice Dances Through Trauma and Transformation

photo by Renee Ronsensteel


by Vanessa Reseland

UNDERLAND X Alice, presented as part of the New Hazlett Theater Community Supported Art (CSA) series, delivers a poignant exploration of personal identity, cultural heritage, and generational trauma, ingeniously intertwined with the beloved tale of Alice in Wonderland. Choreographer and creator Kontara Morphis beautifully weaves a tapestry of dance, movement, and theatrical storytelling that left audiences wanting more.

From its enthusiastic and provocative opening moments, UNDERLAND X Alice captivates with its innovative approach to storytelling. Morphis’ vision unfolds in layers, starting with a poignant introduction to Alice and her family in their home in the Greenwood District in the 1920s. The wealthy family is preparing for a grand party, unaware of the Tulsa Massacre instigation looming that evening. This historical backdrop serves as a springboard for the protagonist, Alice, as she escapes on a journey of imaginative self-discovery amidst the chaos of external trauma and familial struggles.

The opulence and the wealth of Alice’s family in the beginning of the story was experienced by black society in Tulsa before the ruthless attack by racist whites that brought down businesses and families. It was a cunning setup, in this production, to first interrupt the lavish party with a hostile banging on the door. The audience is expecting this to be the raid. Instead, it’s a different interruption that invites a family drama to the party with the arrival of a mysterious figure, the presumed Auntie Rose.

The family tension was then cut by another banging at the door, followed by the historically inevitable, racially motivated attack. As images of destruction, fires, and faces from the Tulsa Massacre, were depicted on hanging screens, Alice is sucked into the wreckage completely. In this show, she emerges in UNDERLAND, a version of the well-known concept of Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This provided a map for us, a baseline understanding of a world and characters so well-known. The delight would be born of the specificity and uniqueness of the reimagining of this tale.

As the narrative unfolds, Ashley G. Ford’s portrayal of Alice serves as a poignant anchor, guiding the audience through layers of familial strife and societal upheaval with grace and authenticity. Ford’s Alice was the link between our two worlds. Dressed in head-to-toe black lace and tulle, Rose, who became The Queen of Spades in UNDERLAND was played with thrilling assertiveness and power by Michia Carmack. Alice’s mother, The White Queen in UNDERLAND, was played by the ethereal Arnita Thompson and dressed all in white. She and Rose moved, at odds with each other, around the ballroom. Both artists kept the audience captivated and served as the backbone for the production’s emotional impact.

Morphis skillfully intertwines Alice’s journey with themes of cultural identity and societal resilience, offering a poignant reflection on the enduring impact of historical trauma. Always diverting expectations, well into the second half of this show, we were introduced to a vocal piece sung by the attention-grabbing Anqwenique Kinsel. She gave voice to the current Rose/The Queen of Spades, physically and silently acted out by Carmack and a younger version of Rose, danced with heartfelt emotion by Kaylee Wilson, to tell the story of a sexual assault perpetrated against Rose at age 13 and the stealing of her baby, Alice, by her sister, Ida.

Morphis and Washington utilized the natural gifts and abilities of all of the dancers and actors and let them shine. The roller skating Mad Hatter, Martel Brown, charmed the entire audience with his incredible skills, smile, and authenticity.

While the choreography of this show was contemporary, flavorful, and character-driven, some group numbers fell to the temptation of loose lines and the imperfect hitting of marks, which could have strengthened each ensemble piece. However, the emphasis of this show was storytelling. Each character was full of life and moved the way they needed too. What it lacked in uniformity, it made up for in spirit and originality. Each dancer was a brilliant breath of air, sharing themselves in each movement, stirring emotion and reverence.

The production’s commitment to portraying the complexities of Alice’s experience is evident throughout. Through a fusion of modern contemporary dance and mostly non-verbal acting, the audience is immersed in Alice’s world, feeling the weight of her challenges while also experiencing moments of joy, laughter, relatability, and friendship.
One of the most striking aspects of UNDERLAND X Alice is its ability to convey a rich and nuanced story without traditional dialogue. Instead, the narrative unfolds through movement, music, song, and imagery, allowing the audience to interpret and experience the story in a visceral way. This non-verbal approach is a testament to Morphis’s creative vision, director Zachariah Washington’s immense skills, and the talent of the ensemble cast.

The dance and choreography of this show was like jumping on the back of a rocketship and riding through space, but the production’s technical elements were equally impressive. A brilliantly shifting score by Ramin Akhavijou provided an exuberant and cohesive ambiance for the action while encouraging the audience to dance in their seats. Scenic design by Tucker Topel was intoxicating, efficient, and highly effective. The decentralized stage allowed for audience attention to remain focused on the dancers, even amidst ten video screens with captivating AI animation by Scott Andrew projected overhead. The directors utilized the space and the built-in levels of the set to create time warps and scenic changes beautifully. Lighting design by Broughton Ganaway created spectacular moments of mood and mystery that seamlessly flowed from one outlandish UNDERLAND experience to the next

Directors Kontara Morphis and Zachariah Washington made connective, thoughtful, and moving choices down to the smallest detail, like the use of the table going from the family dinner in the real world to the table at the Tea Party in UNDERLAND, now with black and white stripes, continuing the tension of black vs. white that infiltrated both real life in Tulsa and the mis-representation of “good” and “evil” in UNDERLAND.

Throughout the show, Alice is groomed to fight the Queen of Spades, and at the end of the production, Alice and the black Queen face off in a battle to the death. This is where the worlds begin to integrate again, and the Queen of Spades is also “Aunt” Rose. In the final scene, Rose extends the book toward Alice. She is stabbed and killed by the young girl she had called her niece, but there was a secret inside the book, only read in the wake of Rose’s death. Alice had been given the truth of Rose’s life and of her own identity as her biological daughter, seemingly born of the sexual assault when Rose was a child. Rose, dressed in all black, had been the one suffering the injustices. Alice’s mother, Ida, dressed all in white, had been the perpetrator of much of this pain. Both had projected opposite images of their true selves.

The pain of such a realization and its futile timing explodes from Alice with a scream and blackout. While a shocking moment and most dramatic ending to the show, it did not necessarily feel like the cliffhanger Morphis had explained in our preview interview. UNDERLAND X Alice stands as its own piece from beginning to end. The good news is that this show was so stunning and engaging that a sequel is more than welcome.

In a world where pain and trauma are ever-present, UNDERLAND X Alice serves as a beacon of hope and resilience, reminding audiences of the transformative power of storytelling and the enduring strength of the human spirit. As Alice embarks on her journey of self-discovery, she invites us to confront our own inner demons and emerge stronger and more resilient than before.


UNDERLAND X ALICE ran in March 2024. Catch New Hazlett Theater’s next CSA production coming soon.

Vanessa Reseland (they/them) is an actor/singer/songwriter who has performed all over the US and in the UK. After growing up in the North Hills, Vanessa spent 12 years in New York City and three years in Los Angeles, working in musical theatre, film, and television before returning to Pittsburgh to dive into the local arts scene as well. They played the Witch in Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods in London and on the US National Tour, winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Visiting Production and the LA Critic’s Circle Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Vanessa is a founding member of MOD Theatre Company in NYC/LA and co-created and co-directed the webseries, Remarkable Women, with Alexandra Lenihan. They have performed their original glam rock/artpop project, WIFEY, since 2012

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