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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Artney Jackson
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's review of Grease and Fred's review of Coming Back Like a Song!


Ray Anthony Thomas and Michael Braugher
Photo by Carolyn Brown
Artney Jackson, on Williamstown Theater Festival's Nikos Stage through July 22nd, brings pertinent, contemporary messages relative to working conditions and economic stress in this country. In this world premiere production, James Anthony Tyler's play features six African-American people attempting to survive at the local cable company in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 90-minute piece occurs during portions of five successive days beginning on January 11, 2016.

Within the company's break room, Artney (Ray Anthony Thomas) takes center stage. On one side or the other of 60 years of age, he hopes to land a management position which will be available soon. Rhonda Simpson (Alfie Fuller) is about to leave. Artney is jovial and personable, a single dad who worries about his son A.J. (Michael Braugher). About to turn 30, the young man very much hopes to move out of his father's house. The problem, though, is that A.J. is bi-polar and Artney frets that his son will not stay on his medication.

Jackie Zinner (Portia) has a soft spot for Artney and enjoys being a colleague. Jackie is dealing with some sort of troubling physical malady, her husband has been laid off elsewhere and, while she puts up a courageous facade, she is unsure about potential medical bills. Oftentimes smiling, she does not give in. The company has elected not to pay for health insurance, and the news arrives with implied ramifications for staff individuals.

Two contemporaries round out the cast. Zaahir Baldwin (Christopher Livingston) is college educated, while his best friend Perkins Howard (Joshua Boone) is not. They hang out and trade barbs, but one senses each would jump to defend the other if an intruder threatened either. Zaahir is articulate while Perkins is gutsy.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set is suitably realistic, complete with microwave, refrigerator (where workers store their lunches in Tupperware containers), coffee maker, tables and chairs, calendar, and so forth. Laura Savia, directing, makes quite effective use of the space.

James Anthony Tyler is a black man who grew up in Las Vegas. His own mother works for a cable company there. Tyler has said, "The character of Artney is inspired by a man whom my mom work with (on a different job) for years before he passed on." Yes, he writes of what he knows. The author also has a sharp ear for moments yielding comic promise. Hence, this show has a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Its most timely and effective humorous line belongs to Rhonda, delivered near the end of performance.

In telling manner, Artney Jackson is very much about the title character and his relationship to his son A.J. As a father, Artney knows he should "release" the young man but, as a protective father, he wonders if A.J. can make it. Should he be able to snag the management position, Artney feels he can better help himself and those around him. Ray Anthony Thomas, seen on Broadway in Jitney, Race, and The Crucible, represents his character with warmth, empathy, and a genuinely positive outlook.

This acting ensemble is exemplary. Fuller, as Rhonda, is pretty and lively. Portia embodies Jackie Zinner as one with smarts and compassion. The three younger male actors are all skilled and successful with individual portrayals.

Director Savia definitely grants the performers room to fuse their personalities with those of the characters. Tyler's dialogue bounces from one individual to another and Savia facilitates a balanced production.

One might conclude that there's nothing novel about Artney Jackson and that contention is justifiable. Yet, the scripting is strong and the characters well-developed. Tyler's structure is strong as well. Thus, fused into performance by Laura Savia and her actors, the authentic show becomes worthy and thoughtful.

Artney Jackson, through July 22, 2018, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit wtfestival.org.


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