By Sarah Downs
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, …”
On a flower strewn stage, reality and dream collide. Vintage 1970s chair-desks take us back to the classrooms of an aging public school, its peeling paint and casement windows echoing with familiarity. The students, a group of juvenile offenders clad in yellow jumpsuits, file in and throw themselves into their chairs. Caught in an impersonal legal system, they are half-way to giving up on themselves. Their idealistic teacher Mr. Isaiah (Biko Eisen-Martin), however, has other plans. He understands their fear of being left behind, nameless and forgotten.
Isaiah starts with a meditation on the power of language. First it’s the deep poetry of Othello. Then words hurled as epithets. Words that breathe fire. The young men display eloquence in their own idiom as well as in their English assignments. Clearly, a few of them are very gifted. Isaiah is ready to help them capitalize on their talent — if he could just get past their armor. All of the students, and indeed Isaiah himself come by their hardened shells honestly. Life has been difficult, to say the least.
Dario Vazquez, as Jamal has a sinuous, panther-like quality. His main competition for smartest in the class is Kevin (Shakur Tolliver) tall, brash and loaded with charisma. Kevin is a natural star. Jamal displays less of Kevin’s joy and more sheer determination. Bashir (Travis Raeburn) the man of many baby mamas is the mix-it-up extrovert, always ready for a fight. Raeburn is all graceful bounce and immediacy – seamlessly navigating the fine line between Bashir’s bravado and latent rage.
Dee (Essence Lotus) is out, loud and proud. They are smart, sassy, sociable and soft, both peacemaker and troublemaker, and nobody’s fool. Lotus brings both charm and gravitas to this role. And fishnets. In contrast to the others, Antoine (Dharon Jones) the introvert, takes refuge in art. Jones gives a thoughtful, electrifying performance of a man at the bottom of a well of pain. And there’s Eddie (Ed Ventura). Eddie’s a cypher. He spends most of his time drunk or asleep – or both. He has his reasons, the terror of which drives him to escape into alcohol. Ventura conveys Eddie’s delicacy and lightning flashes of anger with incredible skill.
The school principal, Mr. Cartwright (Leon Addison Brown) embodies the duality of leadership. Brown is excellent, conveying both the fatuous bureaucrat, and the weary educator whose own sacrifices weigh on his heart. Cartwright warns Isaiah about the dangers of getting too close to his students – of getting too soft, but he refuses to believe it. As Isaiah, Biko Eisen-Martin gives an impassioned, dynamic performance of a man looking for answers in the hearts of his students, and in so doing unlocks his own.
Despite its intricate language and occasional poetry, soft suffers from its zeal to share everyone’s story fully and equally — all the same time, at the same decibel level. It begins to take its toll on the audience, as the competing narratives relentlessly vie for attention. But perhaps that is the point. If we’re tired, imagine how these young men must feel. The cacophony in their world is unending. The young men finally give in and give up. The trick is to harden yourself. The trick is to become your own Forgotten Man.
soft, by Donja R. Love, directed by Whitney White. With: Leon Addison Brown, Biko Eisen-Martin, Dharon Jones, Essence Lotus, Travis Raeburn, Shakur Tolliver, Dario Vazquez, and Ed Ventura. Scenic design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Germán Martínez, props supervision by Andrew Diaz, original music by Mauricio Escamilla and fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House.
In the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at MCC Theater (511 W 52nd Street New York, NY); plays June 9th through July 10th. Run-time 100 minutes with no intermission. For tickets go to mcctheater.org