Racquel and Gabby have creativity to spare. Not only have these HBCU dance team members cooked up a gleefully provocative song to perform at homecoming — after euphemizing for prudish-alumni ears, the number is called “Body, Body, Body, Body (Murder This Body)” — they have also crafted the moves to go with it. Watch them stalk and flounce to the beats, connecting hip-to-hip before hitting a stylish freeze.
What is even more endearing about these characters in “The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes,” Vivian J.O. Barnes’s funny and daringly genre-bridging new play, is the artistry they bring to friendship. When Racquel and Gabby agree on something, they back each other up boisterously. Their exuberance is as one.
Portrayed with superb comic timing by Kalen Robinson and Khalia Muhammad, respectively, Racquel and Gabby generate some of the most diverting moments in “The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes,” now in a world premiere run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The pals’ joyous bond also provides valuable contrast to the play’s darker moments — some of them poignant, others “Twilight Zone”-unsettling.
Those darker beats reflect the debilitating pressures the Sea Mink-ettes are under. As homecoming approaches, team captain Shanteé (Billie Krishawn) strives to fine-tune the dancing. But senior Maya (an aptly brooding Kimberly Dodson) is distracted by her thesis, and newbie Aleyse (Lauren Fraites, acing clumsy enthusiasm) keeps tripping. Kiera (Sabrina Lynne Sawyer) has become obsessed with Beyoncé.
Pushing their bodies to breaking point, the teammates are all too aware that they will soon be watched and judged. No one on campus seems to have their backs. And weird things are happening, starting with stadium lights that seem haunted. As each Sea Mink-ette’s instinct for self-preservation vies with perfectionism and a reluctance to let her teammates down, vulnerabilities register, tensions surge and the everyday world shows its seams.
Director Taylor Reynolds deftly calibrates the tonal counterpoint as the play veers through comedy, heartache and eeriness. Providing a key assist is Ashleigh King’s choreography, which helps convey both the Sea Mink-ettes’ talent and the burden of expectations they strain under. When the majorettes execute one of their in-sync routines, such as a strutting march, you see their investment in their image.
Up-and-coming dramatist Barnes spends too much time emphasizing that Shanteé is a stressed-out overachiever. And performer Krishawn hasn’t yet found a way to bring out different nuances in the character. Shanteé’s nagging rapport with her teammates — with Maya, in particular — often feels predictable.
By contrast, there’s a piquant mysteriousness to Sawyer’s callow Kiera, often seen huddling alone with her music before yanking her ear buds out and throwing herself into dance or conversation. Is Kiera’s fixation with the all-but-superhuman Beyoncé unhealthy? Or is it a coping strategy? The play, and Sawyer’s bracing performance, leave the question open.
Paige Hathaway’s stadium-bleacher set drives home how exposed these young women are, while Danielle Preston’s costumes, including brightly colored athletic-wear, underscore the muscular glamour the characters aim to embody. Minjoo Kim’s expressive lighting and Tosin Olufolabi’s sometimes spooky sound design are vital to the hints of the uncanny.
Though “Sea Mink-ettes” stands apart for its exploration of the particular pressures that young Black women face, and for its embrace and interrogation of HBCU tradition, the play shares concerns with Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation,” another portrait of anxious young women grappling with artistic and social expectations. Barnes’s short play “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!,” staged virtually by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2021, also dealt with the ordeal of public scrutiny.
But with its bold splicing of genres, “Sea Mink-ettes” is distinctive. All the more so thanks to the irrepressible Racquel and Gabby and their outrageous way with a tune.
The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes, by Vivian J.O. Barnes. Directed by Taylor Reynolds. Choreography, Ashleigh King; scenic design, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, Minjoo Kim; sound, Tosin Olufolabi; hair and wigs, LaShawn Melton. 90 minutes. Through March 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW, Washington. woollymammoth.net.