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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine
Talking About Race With Substance and Humor

Two River Theater

Also see Bob's review of Lost in History

You can't brutalize the ear that is willing to listen.


Andrew Hovelson, Merritt Janson, Brandon J. Dirden, and Roslyn Ruff
Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, in a world premiere production at Two River Theater manages the neat trick of directly confronting the issue of talking about race in America with balance and substance. It is important because the play provides a template for exploring contentious and divisive issues without the rancor which has been visited upon our country by exploitative politicians, activists and commentators on both the "left" and the "right", and among all races. And, hot damn, if it isn't one of the funniest and most entertaining plays out there.

The white Judith is a single, liberal, successful freelance journalist with a degree in history from Columbia University and a ritzy, elegantly furnished New York City apartment. The black Zeke is an intellectual, poetically jive-talking, homeless advocate and community activist. Zeke, who has a B.S. in Electrical Science, had gone "from IBM to the streets" after having been fired and after having succumbed to drink and drugs. Zeke places much of the blame for his firing on the pressures he felt by being treated as an outsider because of his race.

Judy met and became intrigued with Zeke while volunteering at a soup kitchen. This has led to her proposal to the New York Times to write a Sunday magazine cover story on him as one of a series of articles on how New Yorkers have been coping post 9/11. As a bit of a ruse Judy has invited Zeke to her apartment to pick up clothing that had belonged to her recently deceased grandfather for distribution to the homeless. The two really hit it off because of their shared interest in jazz and black cultural history as well as the pleasure each takes in sharp, witty repartee. The visit concludes with Zeke accepting Judith's invitation to return for a planned dinner party.

On the night of the party, the only other guests are Judith's boy friend Randall, who is an editor at the New York Post, and Janeece, her college roommate who is a marketing vice president at Turner Broadcasting (it should be noted that Randall is white and Janeece is black). Zeke is a guy who has a lot of angry things to say about race. Randall not only ain't buyin' Zeke's complaints, but he argues with him with hostility of his own. Janeece largely sides with Randall, while Judith sides with Zeke. Although neither Zeke nor Randall are exemplars of politeness in expressing their views, author Santiago-Hudson respects their differing points of view, as well as his audience, by presenting their arguments without ridicule, labeling or dismissiveness. The party ends in disaster.

Performed in an hour and forty-five minutes without intermission, Sweet Blues is actually a classically and precisely structured three-act play. For the first two acts (described above) Sweet Blues is a polished gem. However, the third act is problematic.

As the third act begins, we find that Zeke (with Judith in hot pursuit) has retreated to the bowels of Grand Central Station and the hidden dwelling place of Zebedee, his seemingly mythological spiritual guide. Zebedee has much valuable advice and a meaningful secret to share with us. It is through Zebedee that we can glean the author's points of view on key issues regarding race in America. Santiago-Hudson makes a good case for his view, and certainly provides a basis for contemplation and discussion. However, this scene is inert and leaden. This is particularly so in contrast to the revivifying pace and pleasure which infuses the rest of this play. It largely consists of a dark, overly extended monologue. Although Zebedee's story is a dark and tragic one, it would benefit the play if Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who is both author and director here, would find a way to quicken this scene with the life and liveliness which marks the balance of the play. Even as it now stands,Sweet/Blues could become a widely produced, major American play.

The charismatic Brandon J. Dirden brings Zeke to vivid life. With casual, naturalistic stylishness, Dirden delightfully and completely captures Zeke's smarts, gift of gab, and ability to impress and amuse. When Zeke shows up at the party looking like a riverboat gambler in a laughably outdated high style suit of Judith's father, Dirden brings knockout, deadpan humor to the moment. Dirden, who has racked up some impressive credits on Broadway (including the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. in All The Way) as well as here at Two River, has become one of our finest stage actors. Merritt Janson's Judith fully embodies the confidence, poise, wit, and charm which fulfills an ideal vision of a bright, successful, liberal journalist.

Roslyn Ruff wittily and delightfully encompasses the sharp corporate lady and the sharp-tongued, spirited, down to earth partying girl in her delightful Janeece. The veteran Charles Wheldon convincingly conveys the hurt, intelligence, and decency of the elderly Zebedee. Andrew Hovelson ably rounds out the company as the unaccountably ultra-angry Randall.

Scenic designer Michael Carnahan has provided a tastefully sumptuous set for Judith's apartment that would be the envy of most city dwellers. Its quick disappearance to give way to the book-lined chamber in the bowels of Grand Central Station is a bit of a feat in and of itself. The character-defining costumes—some stylish, some witty—are the work of Karen Perry.

In his capacity as director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has assembled an outstanding cast and elicited rich vibrant performances. The tone of the production is at one with the play that he has written.

Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine is a clear-eyed, seriously entertaining play laden with a high quotient of humor and humanity. It might help save the nation from those who promote internal division and animosity.

Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm: Saturday & Sunday 3 pm) through May 3, 2015, at Two River Theater, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.

Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine Written and Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Cast
Judith………………………Merritt Janson
Zeke…………………..Brandon J. Dirden
Janeece……………………....Roslyn Ruff
Randall/Mole Man…..Andrew Hovelson
Zebedee………………..Charles Weldon


Photo: Michal Daniel


- Bob Rendell



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