The issue of injustice towards blacks is consuming the theater as it is every other institution, so in the interest of avoiding another reminder that the United States in 2021 is a land consumed by white supremacy, I took myself to a comedy about black life, Chicken & Biscuits (which is at the Circle in the Square through January 2) in hopes of something light. The piece is to be commended for being different, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Written by Douglas Lyons, an actor turned playwright who has no previous writing credits worthy of note and says on his website that he “is drawn to telling Black and queer stories that illuminate joy,” the play looks at a quarrelsome family reunion prompted by the death and funeral of a beloved grandfather. There is no plot. The comic energy is meant to emerge from the contrast between urbane and urban: on one side of the family are stuffy, upscale, educated blacks in New Haven who speak standard English; on the other are colorful working-class types who communicate in a profane vernacular that keeps upsetting the intended atmosphere of piety and mourning. The posh blacks try to keep things dignified, but their low-class relatives keep throwing them off.
The genteel side of the family is personified by the dead man’s daughter Baneatta Mabry (Cleo King), a fussy and decorous professor, and her husband, Reginald (Norm Lewis), the pastor who will lead the obsequies and deliver the eulogy. The bull in the china shop is Baneatta’s sassy, loudmouthed sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), a free-spirited Atlanta hairdresser who shows up for the funeral in a low-cut dress more suggestive of a streetwalker than a mourner. Her fifteen-year-old daughter, La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), is equally uncouth, outspoken, and inappropriate, in contradistinction to Baneatta’s polished upper-middle-class daughter, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), who is smarting over having been abandoned by her boyfriend for a white woman. Simone’s brother, Kenny (Devere Isaac Rogers), a New York City stage actor, has brought his Jewish boyfriend, Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie), the sole white person present. Although the pair has been in a romance for four years and might soon marry, Kenny’s mother and sister are frosty toward the boyfriend, and Kenny feels so awkward about the situation that he plays along with pretending that Logan is a mere “friend,” though all present are aware of the truth. Kenny also tones down his mannerisms to de-emphasize his homosexuality, a habit that Logan complains amounts to self-re-closeting.
The text of the play, a long single act, contains nothing that’s funny or witty or even mildly amusing.
The text of the play, a long single act, contains nothing that’s funny or witty or even mildly amusing. Seemingly aware of this problem, the director Zhailon Levingston, who is also making his Broadway debut, has the actors play their trite, dull characters as broadly as they can in hopes of a generous response from the audience. Beverly and everyone around her keep referring to her habit of showing off her breasts (referred to as “puppies” or “titties”); Baneatta keeps coldly offering her wrist to Logan in lieu of a welcome kiss; Kenny keeps gets flustered about his homosexuality around his mother.
When a late development exposes a family secret and introduces a new character, Brianna (NaTasha Yvette Williams), everyone on stage dashes around the space screaming indiscriminately over one another to signal that hilarity is underway, though the twist is nothing but a bog-standard soap-opera convention that has been trotted out in any number of family-reunion tales down the decades, and anyway it doesn’t actually alter the story, because there is no story in the first place. The climactic moments consist merely of everyone coming to accept one another’s differences (while dining on the titular meal) amid dull inspirational maxims and statements of self-esteem. A major element is the play’s urgent plea for gay acceptance, but is such an entreaty really necessary on the New York stage, which has been pushing the idea for more than fifty years? When Brianna refers to her brother’s gay “lifestyle,” he explodes with indignation, explaining that his sexuality is part and parcel of “my identity.” The audience erupts on cue, but this is just pandering. You might as well go to a nascar rally and make an urgent plea for acceptance of beer, or hamburgers. Another major applause line follows Simone’s decision to get her groove back by noting that her ex must have broken up with her because, while he was obsessed with her body, he was “intimidated by my mind” and tried to reduce her to the level of arm candy when, in reality, “I’m a whole damn candy bar!” (Is a candy bar really much different from candy? Discuss.)
The climactic moments consist merely of everyone coming to accept one another’s differences (while dining on the titular meal) amid dull inspirational maxims and statements of self-esteem.
The audience on the evening I attended loved this sub-greeting-card-level affirmation, and was even more rapt when Simone, in discussing her dislike of perfidious whites (having lost her boyfriend to a white “Becky,” she dislikes Kenny’s relationship not because it’s homosexual but because it’s with a white person), casts a hostile gaze into the (90 percent white) audience. In the stalls, everyone cheered, because apparently racial animus is funny when it’s directed at white people. Curious folk, these rich white progressives. You could make a fortune staging something called “The White Privilege Show” and charging theatergoers eighty or a hundred bucks to be paraded across a stage in front of their peers, then whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails by a duly appointed black person. The way white self-loathing is overtaking all other considerations in the theater, such an offering might have the virtue of skipping over the formalities and getting right to the point. As a bonus, six or ten lashes would be over much sooner than this dismal and exhausting 140-minute play.
Martyna Majok, who was born in Poland and grew up in New Jersey, won a Pulitzer Prize for Cost of Living, a little-seen 2016 play that appeared off-Broadway in 2017 and was about a double amputee and a man with cerebral palsy. The piece hasn’t been revived in New York since it ran for a month that summer, and Majok remains a fairly obscure figure. Her latest effort is a poorly wrought and fairly nonsensical social-justice plea in the form of an off-Broadway play, Sanctuary City, which was running in March of 2020 when production was halted. It then returned to the stage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre this September and October.
Sanctuary City, which is mostly a dialogue between a teen boy and girl as they grow up together and enter adulthood, begins as one kind of left-wing propaganda piece and ends as another.
Sanctuary City, which is mostly a dialogue between a teen boy and girl as they grow up together and enter adulthood, begins as one kind of left-wing propaganda piece and ends as another, with the middle occupied by a standard high-school coming-of-age story of the kind reliably churned out by Hollywood and young-adult novelists. Both immigrant characters go unnamed, the boy identified in the program as B (Jasai Chase-Owens) and the girl as G (Sharlene Cruz). Nor are we told which country they’re from, because the pair is supposed to be archetypical of the American immigration dilemma. Both arrived illegally as children, though G gets naturalized in the course of the play, and are meant to personify the playwright’s sense that there is an urgent need for programs to provide permanent residency to youthful illegal aliens. Since the United States seems barely to take notice of illegal immigrants unless they commit serious crimes, and since Newark (the play’s setting) and many other cities vow to interfere with any such federal efforts that might take place, the play amounts to pushing on a string.
Though staged as a single act that runs one hundred minutes, Sanctuary City is in effect a two-act drama without an intermission. The first half is told in brief, cinematic vignettes, which last in some cases only a few seconds, and are set apart by blackouts that indicate disruption of time and space. The two young people are neighbors in a Newark apartment building who meet shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, and tremblingly begin to share the details of their woebegone lives. His mother goes back to the old country, leaving him to fend for himself; she gets beaten up regularly by her stepfather, and the pair repeatedly strategizes about what excuses she should use to explain her absences from school, as if anyone in the inner-city public schools system is likely to care when students fail to show. Huddled together in solidarity against a cold, cruel world, the two begin sleeping together, have a charmingly awkward time at the prom, and agree excitedly to marry.
Gormless and dull-edged as it is, the play, directed by Rebecca Frecknall on an empty square of a stage, passes painlessly enough for its first hour. Halfway through, though, there is a tonal shift as we skip ahead several years. The second half is one extended scene that finds B moody and tense while G, who has returned temporarily from college in Boston, is needy and demanding. The playful flirtation of the first half is gone; now the duo is divided by acrimony. It turns out that the sleeping together in the first half was merely literal; there is no sexual relationship between the two because B is gay, as becomes evident when his lover, a law student named Henry (Austin Smith), turns up in his apartment. The bruited marriage was to be purely a pro forma exercise to secure a green card for B.
The play’s attempts at producing dramatic tension are absurd contrivances: Majok would have us believe that naturalization officers are exacting inquisitors eager to detect and punish sham marriages by cross-examining their participants, jailing those who give incorrect answers. Anyone who has any familiarity with the porous nature of the actual green-card system will laugh at the absurdity of these exchanges, but since B and G have known each other for years there is little chance that they would be tripped up by questions meant to check whether they are well-acquainted. Far from having to create a fake story under high pressure, they need not change a thing about their relationship except to suggest that it’s sexual.
Silly and fake as all of this chatter is, it’s less silly and fake than what becomes the primary source of conflict in the play: G’s anger with B for not wanting to enter into a genuine marriage with her, despite his homosexuality. She even baits him by reminding him that he can never marry Henry, because it’s 2006 and gay marriage seems inconceivable. The obvious solution—that the pair should simply go through with their friendly pretend marriage so that he can get a green card and live happily ever after with his boyfriend—seems not to be on the table. Never mind that the vast majority of gay people are unmarried even today, or that even the most clueless millennial woman must grasp the utter pointlessness of trying to forge a meaningful marriage with a homosexual man. In addition to being hamfisted in her themes, Majok lacks the most elementary skill of a playwright: to engineer a plausible plot. Sanctuary City is a laughably amateurish work that ought never see the stage again.
Rajiv Joseph’s ninety-minute single-act drama Letters of Suresh, which was produced by the Second Stage Theater earlier this fall, might generously be termed a play of ideas. Less generously, it could be dismissed as a farrago of half-formed thoughts. Since the vague and foggy ending left me in an ungenerous mood, that is exactly how I shall dismiss it.
Speaking mostly in long monologues, its four characters consider faith, death, family, science, infidelity, war, peace, and origami. But Joseph fails to bring matters to a dramatic point, to offer any conclusions, or even to offer any fresh reflections on anything. To the extent the play “unfolds”—hey, just like origami!—it doesn’t do so in any effective way. The characters talk (and talk) about various matters on their minds, and at the end nothing is resolved, intellectually, morally, or dramatically. Joseph is an experienced forty-seven-year-old playwright—his 2010 Iraq War–set Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo made a splash, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and attracted Robin Williams to star—but Letters of Suresh contains so little in the way of either structure or momentum that it feels like a thesis or a first draft.
Smartly directed by May Adrales, who does what she can with this porridge of ideas, the play opens with a chatty long monologue delivered by a likeable forty-year-old Seattle college writing teacher, Melody Park (winsomely played by Ali Ahn), who never meets any of the other three characters. What is she doing in this play? She is simply a contrivance to introduce us to a cache of letters written to her great-uncle, a Catholic priest named Father Hashimoto who grew up in Nagasaki and continued to live there his whole life. It seems unlikely that she would travel so far to attend the funeral of this man she never knew, but she does, and she comes home with a mysterious cache of wonderful letters that fascinate her, inspire her, and even heal a major rift in her family after she reads them to her aged parents.
Minute by minute, the play is unpretentious and pleasant enough; the characters are thoughtful and well-meaning.
The letters were written to the priest over the course of years by a goofy but appealing young man from Boston we meet in the next monologue: Suresh Thakur (Ramiz Monsef), who over the course of the play ages from a teen who speaks in the idioms of hip-hop to a thoughtful scientist in his late twenties. Suresh, as a high-school student, exhibited a genius for origami, which led him to a demonstration of the art for children in Nagasaki, which is where he became friends with the priest who lived there. Later we’ll meet a married woman, Amelia (Kellie Overbey), with whom he has an affair that upends her life and destroys her marriage.
The play is a sort of jigsaw puzzle that keeps the audience guessing until the final moments reveal the missing central pieces, which are the actual unmediated words of Father Hashimoto. When Suresh goes to Nagasaki after the priest’s death, he discovers an unsent letter in the pocket of the dead man’s clothes when they are returned from the dry cleaner. In the climactic final scene of the play, the priest (Thom Semsa) will finally explain himself in this ultimate letter to Suresh before dying at ninety-three.
Minute by minute, the play is unpretentious and pleasant enough; the characters are thoughtful and well-meaning. But it never manages to bring elements together. The adultery story of Amelia, for instance, is tangential to matters. Her sole dramatic purpose is simply to be the listener on a phone call in which Suresh explains why he came to Japan and spent months there on an interior quest for meaning. The play is building to what we’re led to believe is an explosive revelation at the end, but, far from being a dramatic shock, it’s yet another matter of homosexuality being revealed. This kind of “reveal” has been a cliché on stage for at least twenty years; will the theater ever accept that homosexuality is now accepted?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 3, on page 37
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