“You’re not a student, you’re a project.” This is the least cutting of all the sharp remarks hurled expertly between characters in Learning Curve, Rogelio Martinez’s new play now running at Theatre Row. Taking the era of racial turmoil and explosive prejudices and funneling it into this college-set play based on true events not only establishes Martinez as a deft attendant to human emotions, but to the unconsciously narrow minds of our past.
It is 1968 at an Ivy League university in Ithaca and David, a young black freshman, meets a fascinating and pretty white photography student at orientation. As their relationship escalates, the girl takes a series of provocative and controversial pictures of him and exhibits them anonymously, creating campus unrest and turning themselves and their love into racial targets. The black students are enraged that David is allowing a white woman to tell “his” story, while simultaneously an older David looks back on the social uproar that resulted from the photographs and the consequences it had on his life’s outcome.
It is an obvious challenge to tell this story without sounding determinedly preachy or restricted, and playwright Martinez acknowledges this, stating: “This play asks a lot of questions, primarily who has a right to tell another’s story. Can the white female student effectively convey an African American’s story? Can I as a Hispanic write a play about the black experience? Can the older David look back and even tell his own tale?” With these questions in mind, Martinez tackles the dual effect of his play: was David recruited to this school to spark a change within only himself, or is the greater outcome that which forever transforms the university?
Cuban-born Martinez crafts an excellent script, which benefits from Michael Sexton’s focused direction. Half the cast doubles and/or triples in characters, allowing some (such as Daniel Talbott and John McAdams) to demonstrate their versatile abilities in both extreme comedy and pointed solemnity. Chadwick Boseman also takes on numerous characters, but his unnerving push into Henry, the character who convinces David to execute a campus building takeover, is both confident and volatile.
The foursome that comprises the central “triangle” includes Graeme Malcolm (Professor Strand), Natalia Payne (Sally), Mike Hodge (Jackson, aka “older David”), and Demond Robertson (David). Between these four actors swirls a precarious saga of power, pride, and prejudice. Malcolm exudes a weary academic arrogance that makes his Professor a formidable opponent to David. This is a man firmly rooted in the caste system, whether he wants to acknowledge his spiteful and perhaps frightened prejudices toward David or not. As Sally, Natalia Payne projects a flippant sexuality that reveals itself to be truer than first believed. Her devotion to David and the war it creates with her struggling inner self and duty to her family (she is Professor Strand’s daughter), is a heart-breaking and sometimes ghastly journey to watch. Portraying David in two distinct forms, Hodge and Robertson remain honest and grounded, never demanding overt attention but instead reveal David’s story almost shyly, the tale of someone who never planned to create such a social revolution.
I never anticipated the clicking of a camera to be such an explosive sound until Shane Rettig employed it to brilliant effect in his sound design. Likewise, Narelle Sissons (set design), Justin Townsend (lighting design) and Suttirat Anne Larlarb (costume design) join together in believably constructing synchronized moments in time, thirty years apart. Placing the actors inside a stark black frame and displaying the looming print of David and Sally’s infamous picture as a backdrop creates a vaguely threatening and extremely effective atmosphere.
Learning Curve is a dangerous glimpse back into an era when citizens saw college as a place to protest or hide, expand their values or fight fiercely to protect them. Although he may not be of the “correct” race or age to tell it, Rogelio Martinez tells Learning Curve’s story as only a human being can: with gripping honesty.
Besch Solinger Productions