June 6, 2023

The enterprising president of the Harriet Holland Social Club just wants the cotillion to succeed. The flower arrangements are in place, a band is on stage, and the curtains are neatly tucked and tied. The debutants are primed and primed. By the end of the evening, she hopes, these young women will have a bright future ahead of them.

Presented by New Georges and the Movement Theater Company at ART/New York Theaters, “The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel,” written and directed by Colette Robert, mimics the proceedings after debutante balls. There’s the introduction of the debutants, the father-daughter dance and a multi-course dinner, but this cotillion – and the production – is far from flawless.

Madam President (Akyiaa Wilson), a 2D villain, encourages the debutantes (Claire Fort, Caturah Brown, Starr Kirkland, Aigner Mizzelle, Monique St. Cyr, Portland Thomas) to prioritize looks and wealth, criticizing express without regard to them as individuals. The more enlightened vice president (a hilarious Jehan O. Young, with priceless passive-aggressive expressions and line readings) pushes for more substance, such as community outreach, and less of the superficial focus on style and status.

The script clearly has something to say about these antiquated rites of passage. But Robert doesn’t go beyond the obvious: Rather than being a source of upliftment and empowerment, the script says, black debutante balls often promote classism, colorism, and retrograde gender politics, such as the objectification of black women’s bodies. And yet cotillions are not the source of the problem; they are a symptom of a more nuanced social and cultural infrastructure. The play’s lack of deeper exploration and character building leaves us feeling unsatisfied – even as the debutants begin to question the whole thing.

Structurally, the piece never finds its footing. It usually takes place in real time, but sometimes it turns into a choreopoem of sorts, with the girls speaking from the future, posing like they’re on an auction block, or taking off their dresses. And the uneven direction results in scenes where the actors’ performance is stilted – full of anticipatory pauses, not the naturalistic flow of conversation.

More gracious is Teresa L. Williams’ set design, transforming the theater into a ballroom, and Stacey Derosier’s snazzy lighting, which creates a festive atmosphere. And the amazing singers of Harriet Holland Social Club (Kayla Coleman, Cherrye J. Davis, Cristina Pitter, Montria Walker) give Marvelettes and Ronettes vibes, with their glittering dresses (fantastic all-round costume design by Mika Eubanks) and choreography (nicHi douglas). The music (Dionne McClain-Freeney) lays out the themes of the show through clever lyrics and a catchy score, played by the band on piano, double bass and drums.

It seems like “The Cotillion” is trying to replicate what writer Jocelyn Bioh did so well in “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” which critiqued not so much beauty pageants as the culture they created.

Robert’s show inspired me to ask my mom about her cotillion. I expected embarrassment. “I enjoyed it,” she said. Her experience has not changed her life for better or for worse. “The Cotillion” forget: this is also just a party.

The Harriet Holland Social Club presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel
Through May 27 at ART/New York Theaters, Manhattan; newgeorges.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.