Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Johnson has created a tenderhearted story that is specific to his particular characters, while universal in its depiction of the turmoil of transitioning from youth to adulthood, dealing with the flaws in our families and realignments among friends. The specifics are set in an African-American community, with 16-year-old Jahaan at the center of the play. Jahaan has amassed a reservoir of anger toward his father Kenny, who for as long as Jahaan can remember has been gone for long stretches as a military career manmost recently for an entire year. He lives under the protective eye of his mother Angela, who expresses her love by maintaining strict rules and high expectations at home. However, Jahaan is observant enough to see that his mother also suffers from Kenny's prolonged absences, and tries to be a comfort to her, even at an age when his most natural impulse is to spread his wings.
Jahaan's two best friends since childhood are Rashad and Terry. Last year, Jahaan was accepted into a magnet high school for the artshe is a writerso he spent less time with his friends during the school year, but now it is summer vacation and the three are constantly together at the park, shooting baskets, smoking weed, and speculating about how to live their lives as young African-American men. Also part of the dynamic is Lady, who has also known the three boys since kindergarten. The relationships among these four are primed for change, triggered by emerging desires and needs.
The wounds these characters cause each other are the result of decent people trying to do the best they can in a world that poses a constant parade of challenges. All of these people seem inherently good, but in doing what they need to do to cope with the weight they carry, they inflict hurt, in spite of the deep affection they have for one another. Most painful is the chilled relationship between Jahaan and Kenny, neither having the skills on hand to bridge the chasm between them. Even so, we know from the first line of the play, as Jahaan recites one of his poems, beginning with "I asked you 'do you love me?'," that the visible signs of hate in Jahaan's heart are in truth cries for love. Jahaan's poem is beautiful. He presents it not as a work being displayed to an admiring audience, but as a yearning heart needing to express itself, the impulse to turn his harsh feelings into something beautiful.
Johnson gives his six characters dialogue that feels very natural, playing out their genuine spirits through their words as well as through the narrative devised by the playwright, with situations that are fully believable, grounded in the cultural context of urban African-American communities, but easily applicable to the difficulties that husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends facing uncertain futures must wade through in any time or place.
H. Adam Harris has an innate understanding of the difficulties people can cause for themselves and for others, even when they are doing what they believe to be the best they can, as demonstrated in his direction of Underdog's production of Luna Gale last year. In How It's Gon' Be, Harris digs deep into the essence of each character, revealing to us the forces that move them to take the actions they take, to say the things they saynot always the best-thought-out of plans, but always the most honest, coming directly from the heart.
Even with Johnson's astute writing and Harris' insightful direction, How It's Gon' Be might risk falling into the camp of overly familiar coming of age stories, built around a father and son in discord. It takes a magnetic presence as Jahaan, who serves as the core of the narrative, for the play to catch fire. Kory LaQuess Pullam, Artistic Director of Underdog Theatre, is Jahaan and catch fire he does. Pullam quickly assumes the persona of a 16-year-old boy on the verge of manhood. As Jahaan tries to talk his way around his mother's orders, in the banter he exchanges with his friends, in his forced indifference to his father that steadily seethes into a full-scale eruption, Pullam totally captures the physical and emotional core of this character.
He is supported by outstanding actors in every role. As Angela, Aimee K. Bryant assumes a tough exterior that enables her to get through her trials, but her deep reserve of love for both her husband and her son come through with the force of a whitewater current. Brian Gunderson is affecting as Kenny, walking on eggshells in his attempt to make amends with his son, floundering badly when forced to take on the role of strict disciplinarian, and finally proving his mettle when he finds a way to speak from the heart. When these two long married folks spar, we feel the heat, but when they fall into each other's arms, we feel the deep affection that has kept them together all these years.
Wariboko Semenitari is heartbreaking as Terry, the most vulnerable of the three young men who grew up shooting hoops together, but also the wisest. Dan Ajak is impressive as Rashad, the guy who has decided that the way to make his mark is to act tough and be cool, determined to keep uncomfortable truths at bay. As Lady, Rajané Katurah creates a full portrait of a girl entering womanhood who knows what she wants, who is both tenderhearted and straight shooting.
A simple playing area defines the homes of Jahaan and Lady, as well as the unkempt playground that serves as central headquarters for these kids, anchored by a flickering streetlight. Marshall Fenty provides evocative sounds that enhance the atmosphere of the scenes, while Emmet Kowler's lighting draws focus to shifts in tone as well as in setting. One minor gripe, though: on several occasions, as a scene is ending, lights flicker on a character entering into the upcoming scene, as if to preview what is coming next, a device that proves to be somewhat distracting.
JuCoby Johnson has written a sturdy play, and a play that radiates heart, with heart that sometimes aches from the losses it endures and heart that swells from the elation of love both given their due. Under H. Adam Harris' strong direction and an excellent cast, How It's Gon' Be emerges as a thoughtfully moving addition to the theatrical canon.
How It's Gon' Be, through June 9, 2019, an Underdog Theatre production, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets "Pay What You Can". For information or tickets go to underdog.brownpapertickets.com.
Writer: JuCoby Johnson; Director: H. Adam Harris; Assistant Director: Joy Dolo Anfinson; Set Design: Leazah Behrens; Lighting Design: Emmet Kowler; Sound Design: Marshall Fenty; Stage Manager: Salima Seale.
Cast: Dan Ajak (Rashad), Aimee K. Bryant (Angela), Brian Grandison (Kenny), é Katurah (Lady), Kory LaQuess Pullam (Jahaan), Wariboko Semenitari (Terry).