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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Rewarding Summer in Sanctuary

Also see Bob's review of Blood: A Comedy

Summer in Sanctuary
Al Letson
You may know Al Letson from National Public Radio where he is the host of the program "State of the Re:Union," which is now in its third season. A Poetry Slam performance artist who has successfully plied his trade on stages throughout the country as well as on HBO, Letson has now brought his 95-minute, one-man autobiographical play Summer in Sanctuary to New Jersey, where he is now performing it in a New Jersey Repertory production under the direction of Rob Urbinati.

The centerpiece of the piece is Letson's stint in the summer of 2006 as teacher of writing and counselor to a group of underprivileged and emotionally needy teenagers in a summer program in the poverty stricken black section of Jacksonville, Florida. What is unusual and most interesting is Letson's emotional response to the situation in which he had placed himself.

Unlike most plays and movies which depict similar experiences which show deeply sympathetic and achieving educators relating to their charges and providing hope and sustenance to them, Summer in Sanctuary presents a much more nuanced and subtle picture.

Letson lays the groundwork by telling us much about himself and his upbringing. Letson is the son of a Baptist minister who was first raised in a secure and loving home in a "homey, safe" black neighborhood in Plainfield, New Jersey. Furthermore, Letson never experienced the alienating effects of, nor was taught, racial prejudice. That is, until his father's vocation brought the family to Jacksonville, where they lived in a middle-class neighborhood where there were a tiny handful of black families. Still, it appears implicit here, that the racism was not pervasive and that Letson had the support and strength not to be undermined by it.

Vicki, a white teacher who brought her students to one of Letson's performances, then recruited him to come to Sanctuary. At Sanctuary, Letson found himself faced with alienated, disobedient, insufficiently educated, emotionally troubled and often downright hostile youngsters. He desperately set about trying to reach them and help them to found the meme (I'm encompassing a whole lot of things into that one word) which would allow them to function successfully and avoid failure and pain. When he realizes that one of the youngsters, a boy named Biko (pronounced "BEE-ko) may use a gun to try to avenge or protect himself from some street thugs, Letson, along with Vicki, takes the youngsters with him up I-95 to Baltimore where he is performing a gig.

Letson has all the concern and sympathy in the world for his charges, and is an advocate for providing the help necessary for saving their lives. However, he also doubts that his efforts have had a sufficient or lasting effect on them. Most interestingly and unusually honest is Letson's acknowledgement that there is a cultural chasm between himself and these youngsters that affects his and their ability to connect both intellectually and emotionally. There should be nothing startling about this, but in a society where cultural and political ideologues want to emphasize and exploit racial disharmony, Letson cuts through the noise to make it clear that it is the culture of poverty, hopelessness and alienation that most divides Americans today. Which is not to deny the relationship between such cultural differences and race. A vivid example is when Letson, driving the group in a van, is stopped by a Baltimore police officer in an act of racial profiling, and Letson, using the good sense which mainstreamers teach their children, teaches his passengers how to efficiently and effectively defuse the situation.

Al Letson, bless him, banishes pedagogy and teaches us all of this with arresting storytelling, heartfelt passion, and self deprecating humor. I am not convinced that he is as hopeless at shooting hoops as he would have us believe, but have no doubt that it was a bridge too far for him to properly pronounce that terrible word, ending with an "a" instead of an "er"—spoken by those born to it "with a mixture of pride and shame"—when he proffered it in an attempt to get them to relate to him.

Letson imitates some of his charges—most notably, the hostile Danita and the troubled African born Biko whose family escaped horrible times in the Congo—holding down caricature to a minimum, and never leaving us trying to sort out whom he is portraying. Biko's back story and the details of his street problem could be presented with greater clarity.

The wide and narrow stage of the NJ Rep studio theatre has a teacher's desk at stage left with a desk and a chair, and some student art on the wall behind the desk to mark a classroom at the Sanctuary. An advertising blurb for this play describes Letson as telling his story through monologue, poetry, song and multimedia (on a few seemingly random occasions, some slides and video are displayed on a screen at center stage) is not inaccurate; the overriding style of Al Letson's play and performance is effectively that of the traditional theatre monologue.

With his Summer in Sanctuary, Al Letson has provided us with a rewarding evening of theatre.

Summer in Sanctuary continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through March 25, 2012, at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

Summer in Sanctuary written and performed by Al Letson; directed by Rob Urbinati


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- Bob Rendell



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