By Donna Herman
There are a lot of reasons to do a revival. Great writing, great stories, lessons learned. Sometimes, we want to see how far we’ve come. And sometimes we learn we haven’t come very far at all. Rosalee Pritchett and The Perry’s Mission, two one-acts being revived by the Negro Ensemble Company for its 50th Anniversary season, show us that we’ve lost ground, or haven’t come far enough.
The Negro Ensemble Company is marking its 50th Anniversary Season by reviving two one-acts from its 1970-71 season, which was dedicated to exploring themes of black struggle. Turbulent times then, and now. In 1970 Bobby Seale and the New Haven Nine were on trial for killing a suspected FBI informant in the ranks of their organization, The Black Panthers. In 2013, the term #BlackLivesMatter was coined in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Treyvon Martin which spawned nationwide protests.
Both Rosalee Pritchett and The Perry’s Mission were written by their respective playwrights, Barbara and Carlton Molette and Clarence Young III, in an effort to shine a light on very different aspects of the black experience in America. The hope being, in both cases, that this beacon could inform a revolution. They’re both well written and well-crafted, and 50 years later still move and surprise.
Rosalee Pritchett, the first up on the evening’s bill, was written by husband-and-wife-team Barbara and Carlton Molette. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Barbara came across a newspaper article that became the spark for the play. In the article, a black waitress who worked at night told a reporter “I’m happy they called out the National Guard. They make me feel safe.” After several “what-if” conversations, the one-act was born.
Rosalee Pritchett, the character(Monique Pappas), is a wealthy, aristocratic, black woman who considers herself above the fray by virtue of her position in society. “That curfew doesn’t apply to us, here. It’s only for them…We’re law abiding citizens. The riots are not in our area. I don’t think we have anything to worry about.” Her bridge club’s only concern about the downtown riots is whether or not they will upset plans for the debutante ball they’re organizing, and if they’ll be able to get the servants they need to prepare the labor-intensive lobster à l’américaine they’ve decided to serve. Driving home from her bridge club that night, she is stopped by a group of National Guard who have drawn light duty in the peaceful suburbs instead of the violent inner city. Played by black men in white-face, per the playwrights instructions, the bored men escalate the encounter into assault.
Also in the playwrights notes, they specify that no curtain call should be taken. A curtain call signals that the play was pretend and allows the audience to put out of their minds what they saw. “The audience should leave this play perturbed and dissatisfied – so, no curtain call.” Be careful what you wish for. There was a curtain call in this production, but the writers got their wish anyway. But I was also disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the play and it both perturbed and surprised me
I liked much about the production, but on opening night, it felt uneven and plagued with technical troubles. Voice-overs that were so low I could barely hear them. Noise from the bar next door that overshadowed the first scene. Stumbling dialog in the first bridge scene that felt like the actors were barely off book. And the staging and lighting of the National Guard scene was clunky and ineffective. I wanted to love it, the costumes by Ali Turns were fabulous, the acting by the entire ensemble was above par, and the writing was thought-provoking. But I kept getting taken out of the moment by technical issues. Frustrating.
Thankfully, The Perry’s Mission by Clarence Young III, has all the elements in place. Young’s stated intention in writing the play was to explore the issues that kept the black community divided. With a fine-tuned ear for dialog, a nuanced understanding of the issues driving his characters, solid plotting and the well-timed use of humor to cut the tension, Young has created a crackling piece of theater. And this anniversary production does it justice.
The play is set in a mid-sized city in a bar in a black neighborhood on a rainy night, and is populated by a powder-keg of archetypes. Seeking shelter from the storm, one by one, the characters enter the bar. In the script they’re listed by type: Bartender, White Prostitute, Processed Head Nigga, Negro Man, White Man, Militant, Teenager, Old Man. Instead of O’Neill’s Iceman, The Perry’s Mission natives are waiting for the bus. I won’t give away the plot twists except to say that the end really surprised me. Although I saw the inevitability of conflict in this group, I did not expect the shocking end.
The pacing here was crisp, the costumes once again by Ali Turns, were spot-on, the staging worked well The acting was excellent. Especially Maria Silverman as the annoyingly loud, provocative, and bitchy White Prostitute. Chaz Reuben as her boyfriend, the Processed Nigga Henry, gave a fabulously physical performance that captured the character with not much dialog. Horace Glasper as the militant, his jaw constantly clenching and unclenching, emanated menace. More, please.
Rosalee Pritchett by Barbara & Carlton Mollete
The Perry’s Mission by Clarence Young III, both directed by Allie Woods
WITH Pritchett: Monique Pappas (Rosalee); Malika Nzinga (Dorry); Jeannine Foster-McKelvia (Belle); Joyce Griffin (Doll); Chauncey DeLeon Gilbert (Barron); Horace Glasper (Lowe); G. Anthony William (King); Chaz Reuben (Wittmer). Perry: Chauncey DeLeon Gilbert (Bartender); Maria Silverman (White Prostitute); Chaz Reuben (Processed Nigga); Daniel Carlton (Negro Man); Buck Hinkle (White Man); Aaron Lloyd (Teen 1); G. Anthony Williams (Teen 2); Horace Glasper (Militant); Ol Man (Laurie Folkes).
Set Design by Patrice Andrew Davidson; Lighting Design by Alex Moore; Sound Design by Jacqui Ascombe; Costume Design by Ali Turns; Scenic Artist & Set Construction by Chris Cumberbatch; Production Manager, Karimah. Presented by The Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80
St. Mark’s Place. Through April 22, 2017. For tickets: 866-811-4111 or visit http://necinc.org/.