All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In dissecting the career, marriage, and tactics of Franklyn Longley, who seeks to become his state’s first black governor after four terms and lots of achievement as a big-city mayor, playwright Richard Wesley offers a sweeping overview of changing tides in politics and black leadership.
His play, “Autumn,” at New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre, depicts Longley as a dinosaur of sorts, the kind of man whose time has run its course and who, with or without his cooperation, may have to step aside to let younger people show a different route to progress while admitting his power and clout, with politicians and businesspeople, has disintegrated.
Wesley loads “Autumn” with a barrage of plots and subplots that use Longley as a central figure to touch on various aspects of today’s cultural and political climate. His work is constantly thought-provoking, but as “Autumn” proceeds, a lot of what Wesley seemed to have carefully plotted unravels into predictable melodrama. What starts as a incisively clinical look at Longley, the aforementioned dissection, turns into a shredding, the exposing of a character, and a potential hero figure, to such an extent, Longley is left with nothing to grasp and may less likely face a term in the governor’s mansion as a term in jail.
“Autumn” engages, but it does always satisfy. Wesley is clever in the way he reveals Longley’s faults. Sometimes evidence speaks for itself. You see Longley tacitly agree to a less-than-kosher deal with a builder he thinks can do a better job on a downtown project than the lowest bidders his city’s charter commits him to contracting. At this juncture, Wesley has ambivalence working for him. The author’s point of view will emerge, but you are unsure whether Longley has played totally dirty pool or if he shrewdly guaranteed his idea’s success by awarding its construction to someone who has the competence to bring a pet project to fruition. The objection of Longley’s long-time aide and generally unquestioning factotum, Zack Drayton, makes us more suspicious. Evidence, we learn, clear and potent as it may be, doesn’t tell a complete story. As least on the surface.
Wesley keeps stacking the deck against Longley, chipping away at his luster and benevolence, as Drayton delineates how the downtown project may be damaging to impoverished people in another part of the city. Perhaps his most simultaneously subtle and overt device is showing how Longley deals with a vocal homeless mother, who camps in a pup tent with her five children on the City Hall steps, at a time when he thinks it’s prudent to appease her and at one in which he wants to punish her for inadvertently making a mockery of his “gift” of housing.
As Longley’s decline looks increasingly inevitable and seems more and more the purpose of Wesley’s play, the promise of an interesting, clear-eyed look at developing trends in politics is gone. Wesley’s aim eventually seems solely to discredit Longley and show that the methods he used to accomplish his successes were foul, that he often cheated Peter to advance Paul, and that he bullied and strong-armed his way to an ultimately undeserved reputation for being a politician that got important matters done. “Autumn” continues to keep you absorbed, but the play you get is not as rich, as commentating, or a prescient as the one hinted at in “Autumn’s” early scenes. You get a broadly drawn, yet defining, look at how politics work, and you witness a man having his pedestal crumble from under him at a time when he aspired to evolve, but this pales next to the preview Wesley grants you of seeing a more poignant piece about a man who thinks and maneuvers in ways that have become a political and racial anachronism. The Longley who doesn’t see the world has changed and that his style of doing things might not work anymore is more intriguing than a man who is receiving comeuppance, politically and domestically, after 16 years he spent being primarily adulated. Wesley is especially keen at having the incumbent governor hesitate to endorse Longley as her successor and at having a protégé of Longley’s, Drayton’s son Ronald, to whom he offers significant advancement emerge as the example of the next generation of leadership that happens to be black, as opposed to black leadership. (Shades of “Macbeth.” Here Longley is in the seat of power, the king so to speak, and Drayton, his Banquo, is the one who appears likely to be the sire of leaders for time to come.) Wesley sets up these sources of dramatic conflict and prime topicality, but he keeps them a suggestions, teases almost, while he concentrates more thoroughly on the downfall, destruction, and possible disgrace of Longley.
Both of the plays Wesley seems to comprise in “August” are worthy and involving, but one seems to o’erleap the other just when it’s getting juicy and enticingly discerning. It’s a shame there couldn’t be more careful interweaving that would lead to the same fate for Longley while continuing to explore why Longley and his strategies are passé, and Ronald Drayton’s are suddenly more fitting and suitable to a modern diversified voter.
Ideas swirl in Wesley’s play. Longley is certainly effective, but Wesley makes the point that he became so by twisting arms, currying and dispensing favors, and using unethically obtained information about his city council to coerce political support. Because of how much he concentrates on Longley’s perfidy in the second half of his intermissionless play, Wesley implies he is in favor of someone who played so fast and loose with laws and who actually spied on his colleagues being totally discredited and disgraced,
Wesley has morality on his side on that. The question, which looks provocatively before “Autumn” makes its turns from ambivalent to absolute, is whether the good Longley has done, and the reputation he has acquired, are worth the bending of rules or are any different from anything other politicians have done with less achievement to show for it.
Wesley answers that in ways by showing his treatment of Tricia Johnson, the homeless mother who loudly pickets outside of City Hall, where she lives in a tent, and who appeals to Longley for help.
Longley extends help out of expedience, to shut Tricia up and preclude her from damaging his chances for the gubernatorial nomination. When Tricia, though she seems grateful and deserving of the boon she receives, a section eight set-aside house in a new development, gets into a dilemma because she can’t control her drug-dealing, gang-affiliated nephew, Longley says his hands are tied, and Tricia will just have to be evicted for harboring a criminal within her home. Both arguments have a legitimate case, but Wesley shows that Longley, now that he has an “out” to explain why Tricia is making a nuisance of herself on City Hall steps, refuses to help her.
The most noble character in “Autumn” is Zack Drayton, and even though it’s clear Zack may relinquish his support of Longley to back his son, Ronnie, and governor, the dying Drayton, in a lovely performance by Count Stovall, goes further and uses documents and ledgers in his possession to expose Longley as one who ran his city by pay-for-play that netted him a personal fortune.
Longley’s downfall takes gets more and more attention, and as it does, Wesley’s play becomes more cut-and-dried. The genuine interest comes from the machinations of politicians as they jockey among each other, keeping a close eye on the political as they try to govern.
We never see the real contrast between Franklyn Longley and Ronald Drayton in depth. Wesley presents it as a given and paints sequences supporting in broad, rather than detailed, strokes. Longley is shown to be a family man on paper but one who displeases his wife at home. Ronald Drayton is a dedicated family man without a blot on his record. He is squeaky clean while Longley is polished and does his laundering financially.
Most important, Ronald has an image that could draw wide appeal. Longley may have alienated all non-minority voters other than the ones from whom he’s accepted bribes or with whom he brokered sweetheart deals. Longley is John Street or Jesse Jackson while Ronald is Michael Nutter, Cory Booker, or Barack Obama, whose race impinges less and who are looked at by voters beyond the shade of their complexion. Ronald is acceptable to a broad base, to whom he incidentally happens to be black, while Longley has gone out of his way to be generous to the black citizens that supported him, uninterested in whether non-minorities return to his city and dismissive of blacks that don’t kowtow to him. He is, Wesley implies, less likely to get non-minority or middle-of-the-road black votes.
Once again, it’s this difference in generations, images, and attitude that fascinates the most and makes Wesley’s play seem the freshest as it addresses relatively new theatrical territory. You don’t take your mind off of “Autumn” for a minute as it proceeds, and you think about it long after its final bows, but it is what Wesley depicts about leadership that you mull over, rehash, and consider, not the convenient, by-the-numbers crumbling of Franklyn Longley’s power, political dreams, and freedom. You are less amazed that Longley is corrupt than you are that his accomplishments alone don’t qualify him for governor, and the incumbent governor and the Draytons represent a different world and a different way of thinking about leadership and success.
Jerome Preston Bates is an actor that pulls you in two directions. Bates is a handsome man with a big, commanding voice who conveys the magnitude, seriousness, hunger, and vengeful sides of Longley. You can see Bates as a man of power who stops at nothing to get what he wants, and decimates anyone who gets in his way, even as loyal opposition.
He certainly shows the force and passion of Franklyn Longley and does a fine job portraying the mayor’s anger, disappointment, and desperation in the half of the play when Longley is besieged with accusations and revelations that have the potential to destroy him. On the other hand, Bates is given to strange readings, emphasizing words that make no difference to what his character is saying. I noticed this trait previously when Bates was in “Stick Fly” at the Arden in 2013. It’s as if the actor isn’t thinking about what he is saying and just tosses off lines to barrel through the script.
In “Autumn’s” opening scenes with the governor, with Zack Drayton, and with a businessman, I noticed Bates’s careless tic of phrasing. As matters became more dramatic and threatening to Longley, Bates got better. He was more natural in speech pattern and has some superior scenes.
Count Stovall is elegant and businesslike as Longley’s long-time lieutenant. He impresses with how Zack remains while Longley berates, orders, or talks down him. Stovall’s Zack has the sophistication Longley cannot quite project. He is a trustworthy and tactful ally who is more interested in Longley’s progressive ideas than he is, initially, worried about unethical collateral damage along the way.
Stovall retains Zack’s dignity even when he witnesses a candid altercation between Longley and his wife, Melissa, and when he is sitting in a robe and pajamas, literally dying.
Zack is involved in a lot of the action, and Stovall remains consistent with the quiet competence of his character who can muster passion, and righteousness, when he realizes his days a numbered and that is his son who is favored for the gubernatorial nod and not Longley. It is Zack who takes the decisive step that seems to seal Longley’s political and personal future.
Michael Chenevert, as Ronald Drayton, immediately strikes you in the manner that Longley sees him polite and refined, polished to a stylish fare-thee-well. You hear traces of Zack’s Chenevert’s voice as Ronald. The character is so groomed, he comes off as naïve and without ideas, even if he has convictions. Ronald is a state assemblyman Longley woos to replaces him as mayor and be his teammate in improving the state, We, like Longley, are surprised to learn Ronald is considered to be the more viable candidate for governor and has mass support Longley doesn’t.
There’s fortitude and guile behind that carefully maintained exterior. You can see why Ronald is hailed as the politician of the future. Next to him, Longley seems older and less finessed.
Stephanie Berry is excellent as Tricia Johnson. She is beleaguered and combative when she encounters Longley the first time. You see the various facets of Tricia, a tough, hard-bitten woman who is going to demand and not beg for the things she and her children need, and the woman, who once she had some things she fought for, might relax and seem too cavalier to keep them.
In the long run, Berry keeps Tricia sincere and honorable. Her homelessness belies her intellect and her ability to articulate what the average person coping with poverty needs, as opposed to the window dressing Longley might supply while news cameras are recording.
Kim Weston-Moran endows Melissa Longley with a lot of emotion, most of it pent up from living with Longley for so many years.
When Melissa first appeared, I had to pause a minute to figure out whether she was Longley’s or Drayton’s wife. The way she talks to Longley gives the impression she is commenting from the outside. It’s our first sign that Longley is not as smooth as he thinks, and may have detractors, when Melissa begins whaling into him about marital matters and what she regards as a foolish bid to be governor, not because she knows Longley to be dishonest, but because she doesn’t think he is the kind of black man who would appeal to voters in the southern half of state that is sharply divided by geography.
Terria Joseph is a pert governor who conveys the expediency and duplicity of a politician while always been even-tempered, straightforward, and even charming. She keeps the snake in her grass well hidden but doesn’t hesitate to bite when, however gracefully, when she gets the chance. Joseph Mancuso has all of the right mannerisms and vocal expression as a businessman working a favor from Longley.
Seret Scott helps keep Wesley’s material engrossing by keeping her production of “Autumn” taut and intense, even as if moves from a look at general contemporary politics to the breakdown of Franklyn Longley. Scott is especially deft at eliciting the conflict between characters, whether it’s overt in the form of Melissa holding a mirror to Longley or subtle as in Longley’s first meeting with the governor and Ronald Drayton. Scoot also involves us tenderly in the slow but constant failing health Zack Drayton endures.
Chris Cumberbatch’s set neatly serves a variety of purposes, especially as it transfers easy from the governor’s office to Longley’s. I especially like the bit Palladian window that in one scene gives the impression of being prison bars. Ali Turns’s costumes denote the characters well, especially the jacket, vest, and slacks combination she chooses for Ronald as the various wardrobes from well-tailored suit to robe and slippers for the dying Zack. Ves Weaver’s lighting is key for scene changes and allows for smooth transitions to take place.
“Autumn” runs through Sunday, May 3, at Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $45 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 732-545-8100 or by visiting www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.