Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Playwright Daniel Beaty has a lot to say about the role of African-American men in American society. He knows that they can improve their lot, and the status of their entire community, if they spend more time focusing on health and personal responsibility. Beaty's play Resurrection, now being presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a 95-minute exploration of those issues, and it certainly gives its audience a lot to think about. But Resurrection ultimately disappoints because Beaty can't find an adequate way to dramatize topics that are vitally important today.
Resurrection tells of six men, each in a different decade of his life. Each is religious. Each is indebted to the "strength and love of black women" in his life. Each is noble, even the ex-con. And each is more a collection of stereotyped personality traits than a convincing, flesh-and-blood character.
There's Alfred (Jeffrey V. Thompson), the sixty-year-old bishop of a 10,000-member mega-church; he's addicted to junk food, which caused him to suffer a diabetic attack on the pulpit. There's Isaac (Alvin Keith), the bishop's forty-year-old son, a successful music industry executive who is tormented about whether to reveal his homosexuality to his conservative father. There's Antoine "'Twon" Burns (Turron Kofi Alleyne), a twenty-year-old who overcomes dyslexia to graduate at the top of his class, but whose path out of the ghetto (via Morehouse College) may be derailed by a girlfriend who has other ideas. There's Mr. Rogers (Keith Randolph Smith), the fifty-year-old owner of a health food store, who struggles to make a living and to educate his community on ways to break their dependence on the soul food (or "slave food," as he derisively calls it) that has greatly impaired their health. There's Dre (Che Ayende), a thirty-year-old ex-con who gets a second chance thanks to Mr. Rogers and the bishop, only to find that the sins of his drug-filled past may cost him his life and the life of his unborn child. And, finally, there's Eric (Thuliso Dingwall), Mr. Rogers' brilliant ten-year-old son; he spends his days devising recipes for herbalized tea, but his real aim is "to find a cure for the aching hearts of black folks."
Sadly, that's pretty much all there is to Resurrection. There are no major conflicts, no unexpected developments. Beaty is a keen observer of society, and his reflections ring true; when Mr. Rogers says he started a business in his own neighborhood because he was tired of seeing "Chinese people cooking soul food," there were clucks and murmurs of recognition from the audience. But there's surprisingly little poetry to Beaty's words, and the comedy scenesmost dealing with the Bishop's sweet toothare repetitive and obvious.
Director Oz Scott gives each of the fine actors a chance to shine, and his direction gives us a few striking tableaux (in scenes where young Eric dreams of seeing the men in African tribal garb). But Scott's production feels too casual at times; while the issues that face the black community are urgent ones, there's too little urgency in this production. Instead of a story that builds naturally, the script is a series of disconnected sketches that eventually build toward an unnatural and contrived ending.
I so wish I could recommend Resurrection, because Daniel Beaty's message is one that should be heard. America would be a better place if more young African Americans could hear the student 'Twon declare "I am not limited by where I come from." But wise observations and good intentions don't make for satisfying drama. Daniel Beaty has amazing gifts as a social commentator; let's hope that someday soon he develops equally strong gifts as a dramatist.
Resurrection runs through February 22, 2009 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets prices range from $46 to $59 each and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.
What may be most surprising about the Walnut's production, though, is that it's not just the flamboyant lead characters that make it memorable. Sure, Susan Riley Stevens is excellent as Blanche, the faded, damaged Southern belle who clings to her sad illusions even as the walls she has carefully constructed around herself tumble down. And Jeffrey Coon is equally good as Stanley Kowalski, the "sub-human" brute who turns Blanche's life upside down. Coon is not only forceful in the play's violent moments, he's also convincingly remorseful when he begs for forgiveness from his abused wife Stella.
But where this Streetcar is most rewarding is in the supporting performances of Sandra Struthers and Scott Greer. Struthers is warm and sympathetic as Stella, even when Stella forgives Stanley for deeds most wives would consider unforgivable. And Greer is nicely low-key as Mitch, Stanley's friend and Blanche's suitor. It's great to see this performer, who in the past year has given hilariously exaggerated performances as Thenardier in Les Misérables and Dr. Pangloss in Candide, embody a shy, hesitant and lonely man so perfectly.
Black's direction is solid. He gets good performances out of his whole cast, but he kills time during long scene changes by having extras appear before a scrim playing cops, sailors and prostitutes walking the street. It's an attempt to give the show a bit of the flavor of its 1940s New Orleans setting, but the device seems tired by the end of act oneand this is a three-act show. In addition, for a show whose power depends largely on violence, the fight choreography is oddly weak. When Stanley explodes in rage during a card game in act one, no one seems to be in much danger. Still, this is an admirable production that shows there's nothing musty about this classic.
In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire played its pre-Broadway tryout run at the Walnut, starring some soon-to-be-legendary actors named Brando, Tandy, Hunter and Malden. It's good to have it back.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through March 1, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $60, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.