Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
It's 1969 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) knows the city is going to tear down his restaurant as part of a redevelopment project; he's holding out for the best price he can get. Holloway (David Emerson Toney), the elder statesman, has little patience with hotheads like Sterling (Carlton Byrd), recently out of prison and trying to find where he belongs through confrontation rather than accommodation. Sterling also has his eye on Risa (Nicole Lewis), Lee's waitress and a woman who wants the men around her to accept her as their equal. The other regulars are Wolf (Reginald André Jackson), a numbers runner with no real future; Hambone (Frank Riley III), who cares about nothing but settling a long-standing grievance; and West (William Hall Jr.), a mortician and the richest man in the neighborhood. It all comes across through Wilson's poetic floods of words, which take on the gravity of arias.
Two characters of major importance never actually appear: Prophet Samuel, a recently deceased religious leader whose body lies in state at West's funeral home, and Aunt Ester, the embodiment of African-American identity, a woman who has lived more than 300 years. (Wilson finally brings her onstage in his play Gem of the Ocean.) Sterling also looks beyond the neighborhood with his invocations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Byrd is impassioned as he talks about the need for black power and influence, but his performance is rather too smooth for a man who spent time in the penitentiary for bank robbery. The anchors of this production are Toney, who soars in his speech about the role of unpaid and underpaid African Americans in building the prosperity of white millionaires, and Lee, who conjures up his youth in Mississippi to show how his past has made him who he is.
Director Juliette Carrillo had a double challenge in staging this work: before placing it on Misha Kachman's spacious scenic design in the round at Arena, she directed this cast on a proscenium stage for Seattle Repertory Theatre. Ivania Stack's lived-in costumes, Sherrice Mojgani's emotionally intense lighting design, and David R. Molina's sound design and underscoring work together to create a three-dimensional work of art.