Credit Jonathan Slaff

Credit Jonathan Slaff

Welcome Home Sonny T

Seeing any theater centering on black culture the day after Nelson Mandela passed, is only made more vivid and meaningful against that backdrop. While race riots may be further in our past than the death of apartheid, times have only changed so much. Though protests may seem muted when compared to the literal explosions of 60s radicalism, violence remains prevalent as a scorched earth reaction to the same problems that troubled us back then.

Taking place in the present-day, “Welcome Home Sonny T” begins with echoes of Black Panthers and racial tensions from the 60s in the memory of Reverent Miller played with controlled urgency by Richard Pryor Jr. The Reverend broadcasts a radio show from a community center in Staten Island where the story centers around a welcome home party for Sonny T, a neighborhood boy-turned-soldier coming home from duty in Afghanistan.

The action develops smoothly introducing a young sister to Sonny T, Lashawn (played by Brittney Benson) and a middle brother Rodney (Kadeem Ali Harris). Initially, the polarity between these two characters seems as simple as good sister/bad brother but the actors fill in the roles with comic energy and street smart dialogue. The same follows as we are introduced to minor roles Big Boy (Brandon Mellette), Carlos Mendez (Nestor Carrillo), May Walker (Verna Hampton) and the particularly expressive Levern Williams as Funkygood, one of those comic elders in the hood who can still cut through the shit and speak the truth.

Though confrontation is clearly in the future for these characters, with a few surprising twists and deft staging we are drawn into a conflict so real you almost want to reach out to break up the fights or duck for cover. Buoyed by polished performances from an appealing and talented cast and solid writing and staging this work does more than play out before your eyes. The moral core of the action pivots on Reverend Miller and how he can (or cannot) resolve the violence and hatred of his young charges. We almost want him to do more, but there’s a subtlety to Reverence Miller’s character that becomes apparent only after we’ve seen him perform his final act onstage … and Funkygood fills in the details for Lashawn in the final scene.

A few details and plot points come off a little vague. A killing that Reverend Miller committed is never fully explained. There’s repeated references of the pressing need to hang a welcome home banner which is already hung. (For some reason it always irks me when a theatrical piece of business that keeps actors busy onstage turns out to be meaningless; even the old expository ‘feather dusting’ technique works because the characters represent the see-all house help.) A photo on the show’s poster telegraphs a dramatic event perceptive audience members might pick up on in advance.

Ultimately, you might be thinking: Does well-meaning theater that address intractable social problems create its own drama, speaking to the underlying ills of society while still maintaining dramatic flow and pacing? “Welcome Home Sonny T” comes close to hitting that nail on the head, but misses on the message somewhat.

While the playwright knows he can’t quite slay the demon of gun violence of inner-city youth with a powerful dramatic statement, so the demon fights back, leaving bodies in its wake and a society torn by inequality. Regardless, writer/director William Electric Black has created a morality play about gun violence that doesn’t sweep the problem under the rug and leaves us questioning the power of community leadership.

“Welcome Home Sonny T” is the first of a series of five plays by William Electric Black (aka Ian James), to be collectively called “GUNPLAYS,” that address inner city violence and guns. Black, an Emmy award-winning writer for Sesame Workshop between 1992 and 2002 and other family entertainment television. (He dons the name William Electric Black nom de plume for theatrical work.) We can look forward to seeing Black’s varied perspectives on the issue through more theatrical efforts.

The production has set design by Mark Marcante, lighting design by Federico Restrepo, costume design by Susan Hemley, props and set pieces by Lytza Colon and sound design by James Mussen. The play is accompanied by Harry Mann on saxophone. Fight choreographer is James Manley. Stage Manger is Jason Marx. Production Coordinator is Randy Simon. Assistant Stage Manager is Chriz Zaborowski.

December 5 to 22, 2013, Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Presented by Theater for the New City. Thursdays – Saturdays 8:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets $15 general admission/$12 seniors and students Box office 212-254-1109, Running time 1:40.