Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
On the Grounds of Belonging
It's the late 1950s in Houston, Texas, and the play centers around a gay white man and a gay black man who love one another. Within that city, a segregated gay bar for black people, The Gold Room, was not far in location from The Red Room, a segregated gay bar for whites. Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) spends much of his time in The Gold Room. Thomas Aston (Jeremiah Clapp), who is white, mistakenly enters that place. Tracey Conyer Lee, playing audacious Tanya Starr (with a lovely voice), has already been singing up a storm. Personable Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott) keeps things going at the bar. Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris) wants to partner with Russell.
Russell, however, is quickly attracted to Tom, leaving a bitter Henry on the sidelines. Later, Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), a white man who just happens to own both The Red Room and The Gold Room, makes his presence known. He will explain that relationships such as the one evolving between Tom and Russell are not received well during this era (that of Jim Crow) in Houston.
Director David Mendizábal facilitates this presentation, a meaningful one, with specificity. No one character dominates, although the growing intimacy experienced by Tom and Russell becomes the focal point of the play. Playwright González has stayed away from composing a highly political play. He could have done just that. Since same sex and biracial love relationships were not legal in Houston in 1958, the implications and ramifications could fill many a page or, perhaps, stage. González instead accentuates the love story, which is both moving and complicated.
On the Grounds of Belonging is emotionally impactful from its beginning moments. Shortly before it concludes, Tracy Conyer Lee stands, faces the audience, and sings a lyric: "It's that old fashioned love song." Having performed in dramas and musicals, this actress adds another dimension to the production. Her singing is introductory and, in a sense, summarizing.
Perhaps this production is a conventional one and that is most positive. It's a very graceful and personal show. Director Mendizábal employs no trickery and the staging is not experimental. Designer Wilson Chin provides a well-stocked bar with a few tables; above it (and apart from the bar interior), he has devised a walkway (with a background of green tree branches) for a late scene. González's plotting eventually brings Russell and Tom to the path above the bar.
This work is filled with emotion and intensity. Since Henry hopes that he and not Tom will couple with Russell, there's considerable conflict, too. It's a physical play and, running for an hour and forty-five minutes without intermission, capitalizes upon growing momentum. It is possible to surmise some (not all) of what takes place, but González stays away from melodrama. His script is seriously dramatic and the writer immediately draws in the viewer. The two men in love are in struggle. We know this: they want this relationship to survive and they are uncertain whether or not this is possible. The performances by the lead actors and the ensemble are absorbing.
González has explained that the play is the first in a trilogy. The Long Wharf production is persuasive, well-delineated theater, as Jacob G. Padrón, the new artistic director, begins his current season with an affecting selection.
On the Grounds of Belonging runs through November 3, 2019, at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven CT. For tickets and information, call 203-787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.