What, is it February already? I don’t know if this week actually qualifies as historic, but it certainly represents a step away from the cultural norm for this majority-black city. There can’t have been many seven-day periods outside of Black History Month that have boasted three local world premieres of theatrical works dealing with the African-American experience.
The three are, admittedly, a mixed bag. The highest-profile evening is as patronizing as it is cravenly commercial, and one of the other shows qualifies only as an ambitious work in progress. But the third—oh, that third! Marvin McAllister’s Draft Day is, in almost every sense, a cause for rejoicing—provocative, satirical, scabrously funny, and blisteringly hip as it plays with theatrical form and messes with an audience’s collective mind.
Set simultaneously in the 19th and 21st centuries, the evening begins with a pair of white slave traders on one side of the stage and a pair of black college basketball stars on the other. “Bid ’em up, bid ’em in!” barks a woman standing with one foot in each century, and thereafter, scarcely a word is uttered on either side of the stage divide that isn’t about breeding, prowess, cash, or control. Yes, there are differences between the two eras: The ballplayers are eager to be bought and will profit from the buying; the slave traders employ physical shackles rather than financial ones. Still, the auctions are more similar than not, and by the time the author has articulated the pressures influencing the men being bought and the interests of the ones doing the buying, the ethics of the proposition hardly seem more exalted today.
“I ain’t property,” protests the more thoughtful of the two athletes.
“That’s just what you are,” says his buddy, “so I suggest you get you some proper representation.”
Now, McAllister (who is a visiting lecturer at Howard University) is not the first to note that the spectacle of white club owners bidding for black ballplayers, restraining them with ironclad contracts and golden handcuffs, and then trading them like livestock, is a modern version of the practice outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation. But he’s the first in my experience to make such evocative dramatic use of plantation symbolism. His play finds disturbingly apt, era-appropriate equivalents for all sorts of stereotypes that infantilize, control, dehumanize, demean, and sexualize black men. And it does so in language crammed with jests (the teams bidding on the players include the “New York Freemen” and “Carolina Geechees”) and pitched almost like music. It’s as if the slangy back-and-forth of the b-ballers was designed to mesh with the ornate stylings of the slavers in a kind of verbal score, in which the players’ urge to “make a buck” dances a creepy gavotte with the owner/traders’ determination to “break a buck.”
From the names the playwright has given his characters—players Mecca Roanoke and Kenya Manhattan, slavers Mr. Solomon and Mr. Noah, and a seductive siren named Venus (representing womankind in both eras)—you might suspect that he intends to explode stereotypes by utilizing them. But the characters turn out to be nuanced, conflicted, and surprisingly individual. Soft-spoken Mecca (a magnetic G. Alverez Reid) flashes an easy smile as he talks of inspiring the grade-school “shorties” who look up to him, but he’s hiding a number of secrets. Sly, money-mad Kenya (sharp-tongued Mark Payne) may have sacrificed scholarship in his cold calculation of how to maximize earnings, but when asked, “Did you miss school when you missed school?” he answers in the affirmative. Michael Kramer’s crasser-than-crass trader, Mr. Solomon, extols in the most delicate of rhymed verse the attributes of the Yorubas, Bantus, Coromantees, and Maroons he places on the block. And as potential buyer Mr. Noah, Anthony Gallagher walks a tightrope between disgust at Solomon and fascination with what he’s offering. Sloe-eyed seductress Dionne Audain is intriguingly multifaceted in both her incarnations as Venus: a sportscaster adept at pumping up players so she can deflate them on air, and a bracelet-rattling slave-market translator who convinces her boss she’s pacifying his human property as she’s giving them the tools they’ll need to escape.
Tre Garrett’s staging is both bracingly brisk and resourceful on a budget, using rudimentary shifts in Dan Covey’s lighting, subtle adjustments to William Pucilowski’s costuming, and helpful assists from David Lamont Wilson’s soundscape to delineate period. In front of a vaguely cubist painting (representing, perhaps, the play’s refraction of stereotypes) designer Tracie Duncan supplies just a few basic props—auction blocks and shackles, a couple of chairs and a bench—to conjure up everything from TV studios to slave quarters. Nothing is extraneous in Garrett’s staging, no movement wasted, no emotion sentimentalized or overblown. He’s definitely a talent worth watching. But then, that’s true of everyone associated with Draft Day, not least the playwright.
Credit the other play in the African Continuum Theater Company’s Fresh Flavas repertory, which is designed to develop new works by African-American writers, with being similarly tricky in concept—but deduct points for execution.
David Emerson Toney’s Kingdom is a comic take on Richard III, transposed to 1960s Cleveland. The central character is named Ricky-Trey York; his posture is skewed not by a hunched back but by cerebral palsy; and he lives above a barbecue-chicken shack operated by his half brothers Eddie-Ray and Clarence. Not laughing yet? Well, the half brothers have variously protected, exploited, and seriously misled Ricky-Trey for reasons I can’t reveal without giving away too many of the play’s surprises, so suffice it to say that when our bent hero takes a shine to Lena, whom Eddie-Ray has brought home to beget an heir for the chicken shack, the arrangement is thrown fatally off balance. Revelations ensue. Alas, fun doesn’t.
Handled expeditiously, Toney’s scenario might be made to work in the way the transposition of Macbeth to a ’70s fast-food franchise did in the film Scotland, PA. But Jennifer L. Nelson’s staging for ACTCo emphasizes character traits—Eddie-Ray is a windbag, Clarence a proselytizer, Lena a revolutionary, and Ricky-Trey a stammering dreamer—at the expense of speed and comic timing. By encouraging her cast members to give every eccentricity far more than its due, she’s ended up with an evening that clocks in at close to three hours but has jokes enough to sustain audience attention for only about a third of that time. Pruning and winnowing is called for. So is a less cluttered production. Presumably the designers were not simply told to look at their work for Draft Day and try to do something as different as possible. But if that had been their instruction, they might well have ended up with the cartoon appliances on angled flats, garish hues, and unsubtle sounds of Kingdom.
That said, mounting two shows in repertory presents such enormous challenges that very few theater companies even attempt the feat anymore, let alone attempt it with a pair of untried, thematically ambitious works. And ACTCo is doing so while still learning how best to use its new flexible auditorium at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Call it overreaching in pursuit of a worthy goal—and one that has been at least partially achieved. Kingdom may not quite be ready to play, but Draft Day is an unequivocal slam-dunk.CP