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Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 21, 2019

K. Lorrel Manning and Eddie K. Robinson
Photo by Edward T. Morris

In Awake, the estimable Barrow Group's current production, K. Lorrel Manning tackles a host of divisive and contemporary hot-button issues. Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, religious hypocrisy, school shootings, police brutality, and freedom of speech are just some of the topics addressed by Manning (who also directed) and his excellent cast of fifteen. This all may seem ungainly for a single night at the theatre, but the program consists of nine short plays that are mostly effective — and often quite potent — in exposing current societal rifts.

In many respects Awake is reminiscent of the Living Newspaper form popularized by the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Focusing on a particular issue of the day, such as affordable housing, agricultural reform, or availability of electricity, the plays presented a series of vignettes based on national headlines and government statistics. The plays tended to be one-sided in their treatment of the material, and this was a primary reason for the right-wing Congress to defund the Federal Theatre Project in 1939. Manning's own playlets, though not drawn from actual headlines, appear to derive from recent news accounts, and they undeniably speak (without pandering) to the critical concerns of left-leaning audience members.

"Flowers," for instance, a monologue blisteringly delivered by Sandra Parris, describes the experience of an African American woman arrested in an upscale, gated community. Addressed to an anger-management support group, a character named Cynthia recounts the humiliating ordeal as well as the racially exploitative events that led to the incident. The premise is similar to recent news stories about white neighbors and hotel security guards calling the police to report the supposedly suspicious actions of African Americans. As Cynthia struggles to manage her anger, the character's vulnerability and accumulated indignities emerge in flashes, and the impression is heartbreaking.

As one would expect from an evening of one-acts, some entries are stronger than others. The most successful are those that take aim at the controversial material through carefully delineated characters and surprising revelations. The first and second act closers, which both include a pair of teenagers on a road trip, are especially haunting. In "A and J Rule the Universe" Alex and Jeremy (in spot-on performances by Vinny Baierlein and Trey Santiago-Hudson) are not unlike Harold and Kumar or Bill and Ted on a similarly excellent adventure. While they scarf down French fries, pepper every sentence with "dude" and other recognizable expressions from stereotypical teenspeak, they retell urban legends about body parts in fast food items and exaggerate tales of their sexual conquests. As the scene progresses, however, the darker reason for their car ride becomes clearer and the intended outcome (which will not be revealed here) is both unsettling and chilling.

Trey Santiago-Hudson and Vinny Baierlein
Photo by Edward T. Morris

Similarly, in "The Future?" Jennifer and Max (Ana Roshelle Diaz and Luka Kain, both of whom are excellent) seem to be a typical big sister and her kid brother squabbling over Beyonce, high school science teachers, and who-knows-more-than-the-other. Gradually they reveal disturbing information about their mother's disappearance and where they are heading (which, again, will not be revealed here). Suffice it to say, the playlet puts identifiable and sympathetic faces on one of the most pressing political and social issues of our time.

Another crackling good playlet is "The Interview," which will no doubt be presented in future acting and scene study curricula. Playwright Manning performs the part of Brandon, a presumably charismatic black preacher, and who is in a coffee shop waiting for a friend. Eddie K. Robinson is Eddie, an energetic college student, who knows practically every detail about the church leader. Is the meeting of the two men purely by chance after all? The actors are outstanding, and as the scene takes several fascinating twists and turns, the stakes grow uncomfortably high and the power dynamic keeps shifting.

The less successful playlets are those that forefront the issues rather than introduce fully drawn and compelling characters. "The ‘N' Connection" and "The Date," for example, both highlight nonchalant racism by sexist white male characters, and the exchanges between the characters telegraph the plot twists within the first few minutes of each vignette.

Chika Shimizu's scenic design, Daisy Long's lighting, and Everett Clark's costumes allow for quick transitions, and maximize the power of the writing and the performances. Matt Otto's sound design, which includes broadcasts and commentary from a radio DJ, is deliberately jarring and intrusive. The transitional announcements serve to provide a reminder of media noise behind the quieter personal stories, and highlight the notion that Manning and company have proffered a Living Newspaper for the 21st century.

Through February 8
The Barrow Group, 312 West 36th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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