All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The power of “Hands Up,” a compendium of six monologues commissioned by The New Black Fest and presented by Flashpoint Theatre, is not in the originality or variety of what six black men say about their experience in a wide world that categorizes and judges them on sight, but one the authenticity.
These monologues, performed to perfection by seasoned veterans along with two exciting young actors, Brandon Pierce and Aaron Bell, sear with passion and sincerity as the men struggle to separate or reconcile their individuality with the incessant racial stereotyping five of them endure. The sixth, played with plaintive mystification by Brian Anthony Wilson, is a pale-pigmented man who was raised as white and passes for white and faces none of the indignities heaped on the others but finds no place among any group.
It’s the human stories that register in “Hands Up,” a collection of thoughts and feelings that are as current as the mindless massacre in Charleston or the police excesses in Brooklyn — arresting, let alone killing someone over selling contraband cigarettes? Insanity! — and Baltimore. It’s men talking about their day-to-day and how it wears on their psyche and renders them as misfits, rebels, or overly cautious for no reason except for the way people, and especially law enforcement and criminal justice personnel, will perceive them by the shade of their skin.
Wilson’s character, for instance, talks about never being stopped or questioned when he enters a stadium or boards a train, while Pierce’s character talks about how tired and frustrated he is with the “superiority fantasies” of others, and Bell’s intrinsically fascinating character tells why he is going from a smiling face using advised behavioral options to get by to a terrorist determined to make a statement about the inner torture prejudice and fear of unwarranted confrontation have made of his young life.
Bell’s character is the most poignant, the one that provokes the most emotion, consideration, sadness, and alarm. The young adult in Glen Gordon’s composition, “Abortion” is intelligent, articulate, vibrant, and full of potential. He has not personally been all that buffeted or abused by prejudice. But he sees it. He feels it. He reads about it, and what he reads disgusts and directs him. Blending the coolness of street wisdom with a discerning intellect influences by what he knows and what we reads, Bell’s character makes far-reaching decisions. He recognizes barriers, and he draws barriers, but most of all, he sees and sensitively comprehends all that is happening around him, as well as what is happening in far off Ferguson or Charleston. Bell’s character thinks and acts on his thoughts, He will not bear children in this world, as a “baby daddy” or married man, because he considers it evil to bring new lives in a world that is so difficult and unfair. This young men wants to prevent pain, disillusion, and heartache from filtering down to yet another generation. Smart and intuitive though he is, he regrets that his parents chose to saddle him with a world they had to know was illogical and without respect for people as individuals.
Far from making the young man passive, the conclusions Bell’s character draws makes him more radical. He doesn’t want to make decisions for his life alone. He wants to evangelize. He wants to spread the message that this is a foul world where his life, just because he’s black, can be extinguished by the trigger happy, whether they wear a police uniform, have a gang affiliation, are racist vigilantes, or just plain crazy but in possession of a weapon that can kill. The young man’s blackness makes his vulnerable in a way it surprises people of other races, Latinos excepted, to hear.
This young man doesn’t want to continue with his everyday the way current society has plotted it. He is for abortion, perhaps deferred abortion, and he wants to make a statement.
The absolute perceptiveness, logic, and astutely digested inferences of this young man are scary to behold because they ring with such truth while crying out just as insistently for a better solution.
Bell’s character wants to do something to raise consciousness just as “Hands Up” excites consciousness by bringing to the fore matters you don’t ignore out of apathy but don’t think or dwell on if they not part of what you deal with and have to be wary of on a daily, momentary basis.
Bell’s monologue is not only potent because of his content. It has indelible impact because of the way this remarkable young actor, unknown to me before “Hands Up,” dissects Gordon’s monologue and presents as an aria that builds in arresting intensity, through its piercing reasoning, to its almost incomprehensible yet plausible ending.
Bell is not just a reciter, just a mere deliverer of words. He is a bright young man telling his intelligent discoveries and conclusion through a wall of pain. You sympathize and empathize with this character. You are riven with angst at horror at his ultimate plan, as much for what it will mean to this extraordinary youth as for others his intended act will affect.
Gordon’s monologue, and Bell’s performance of it, become the centerpiece for “Hands Up,” the poignant piece among poignant pieces that gives Joanna Settle’s spare but brilliant production for Flashpoint, its heartbeat, its soul.
Brandon Pierce’s character in Nathan James’s “Superiority Fantasy,” is as articulate and sensitive as Bell’s character but less philosophical or introspective. He sees his situation from the outside where reality lies, and surviving without blowing up or turning on others is the key.
Pierce’s character is skilled on how to look benign and passive so he doesn’t scare people on sight, or attract police attention, just for being a wiry, funny, animated black dude. He talks about how valuable and disarming a smile can be, bow looking self-consciously friendly may persuade those determined to cast you as the other, and a threat, you are indeed friendly or at least just going about your business in a way that should preclude you being of interest or notice to anyone.
Pierce’s character knows his game but finds it tiresome and angering. The constant proving of harmlessness, the incessant feeling of being suspected of ill will, the nerve of a majority to cast aspersions on his equanimity and potenital behavior because of something as biologically elemental as pigment, grates on every fiber of his being. It causes anger. It causes depression. The character controls his anger. He’s a civilized human being, which is his point! The despondency stays and eats at the young man. It robs him of joy. It subtracts, not from his humanity, but from his pursuit of happiness and his ability to get passed roadblocks and prejudices that may be part of his existence but which he does not think he should have tolerate or, worse, accept.
Pierce, one of the first actors I would hire if I was forming a company — He is so gosh darn versatile. “Dutch Masters.” “Milk Like Sugar,” “The Fair of Maid of the West,” now “Hands Up!” This young man is capable of playing everything and doing it with integrity and aplomb. — is the picture of intensity, of ferocity being contained and ready to blow when a smile won’t suffice or some presumably superior being goes too far in asserting his or her alleged privilege.
As I said at the beginning, it’s so much that you hear something new or revelatory in “Hands Up,” It’s that you hear from people who are living with a weight that doesn’t go away and can’t be cast off. Reality, authenticity, and sincerity rule Settle’s stage. No one is playing with you, being ironic, making fun of his plight, or pulling punches. Cumulatively, Keith Josef Adkins’s concept for The New Black Fest, has reminded you that many black men regard themselves as an endangered species, subject to hazards and indignities other may not be able to conceive or toss off as paranoia, because they have no way of relating to them.
The man in Brian Anthony Wilson’s monologue, “Holes in My Identity” by Nathan Yungenberg, feels lost and unconnected to his racial counterparts because he was adopted by white parents, raised in a white environment, and is accepted as white.
Wilson talks about his character moving like a white man, about police and security officials barely noticing him while they’re making some equally unsuspicious black woman empty a handbag devoid of anything dangerous on a counter.
Wilson’s character is missing his filial link, his heritage, a bond he would like to establish and feel. He wants to know what others are going through that he, because of his light skin, never experiences. Wilson’s character wants to be part of a group to which he was born but cannot make connection. His identity is incomplete. He regards himself as belonging nowhere. His name is not the one his birth parents gave to him. His upbringing doesn’t march that of the people he sees as his peers. He has no roots. His life is manufactured in a way other people’s aren’t. He even has to put up with racial jokes no one censors because no one thinks he’s black.
Wilson’s characters plight makes me think of especially memorable passage from August Wilson’s play, “Jitney,” the scene is a dispatching room of a cab company where the drivers are waiting to be sent out for fares. The drivers are all black and some are griping about what “the white man” does to hold them back or put obstacles in the way or make unfair restrictions. After listening to the escalating complaining for a few minutes, another character chimes in by saying, “I don’t why you keep on with “the white man” this and “the white man” that, and “the white man” ate my birthday cake and keeps me from getting rich. The truth is “the white man” is doing nothing to you. The sad situation is “the white man,” for good or evil, is not thinking about you at all. “The white man” doesn’t know you exist or care.”
Wilson’s character is a position to know what white America thinks of race and, when pejorative, to be stung by it. As usual, Wilson present his character’s case with intensity and integrity.
Johnnie Hobbs, Jr,, who I’ve been seeing in theaters since before man discovered dust, is youthfully fresh as he opens his monologue, “They Shootin!” or “I Ain’t Neva Scared” by Idris Goodwin, with a well-executed rap.
Hobbs’s character is a man inured to the street and to the insults and odd advantages to which being an older black man will expose him.
Hobbs’s character mixes his disgust and anger with humor as he states firmly he’s ready for anything anyone can dish out. He’s seen it all. He’s experienced it all. He just lets everything roll off his back while always being prepared and open to a confrontation or situation that may erupt, will he or nil he.
In “Walking Next to Michael Brown” by Eric Holmes, EZ Hernandez presents a Latino perspective of the relationship between people who are regarded as foreign, and have pigment darker than white, have with authority and, particularly, the police.
In “How I Feel” by Dennis Allen II, Lee Edward Colston II physicalizes the discomfort and embarrassment of keeping one’s hands raised by insisting all members of the audience keep their hands in the air during his entire eight-minute dialogue in which the words, “Hands up,” and the order, “Hands up,” are interspersed within a monologue expressing the indignity of being singled out and the consequences of nothing complying with another person’s bidding, especially if that person is a police officer.
I have to admit I was one in the “Hands Up” audience, sometimes the only one who violated Colston’s orders and lowered my hands when I tired. I know I was breaking the mood and being on some level uncooperative and disrespectful, but I was in a theater, not as crime scene as a suspected offender, and I, who loathe audience participation in general, didn’t like having to follow orders that aren’t part of the contract when I enter an theater.
That’s the point, of course. I could resist and be belligerent. I had autonomy and free will. I didn’t have to do as bidden, especially since I was one a back row and not especially noticeable as a miscreant to anyone who might be disturbed, miffed, or self-conscious because I opted not to follow directions.
“How I Feel” puts the “Hands Up” audience in the position of the person at a police officer or other authority’s mercy. Colston would understand the power an authority figure has. He was an correctional officer at a prison before he became an actor. He may be aware of the “Hands Up” situation from both ends.
Colston certainly was commanding and convincing as a man who wanted the outrage and disproportionate miscarriage of enforcement to end. When “Hands up” was a form of amen for something substantive Colston’s character said as the audience sat hands raised, I would put up my hands in solidarity with a worthy sentiment or statement of defiance to selective and racist procedure.
Race, as “Hands Up” and current events remind us, is a matter than doesn’t go away because so much brings it to the fore. As one character says, he is not interested in whether some people, black and white, are tired of the discussion, bored with reminders of perfidy, and inclined to walk away and become ostriches. The matter, benign or immediate is there before our eyes.
“Hands Up” is a call to action. No one suggest anything specific, but the plays Adkins put together, make one think about his or her role.
I am one who tends to go my own way without taking too much stock of what might be happening to or with others. It’s not one of my better traits, but I say I have one life to live. I know what pleases me, and I seek that and do not feel compelled to be an activist. Except in this way. Not to be part of the problem, to take each person as he or she comes and base opinions, friendship, or disdain on the individual regardless of any ethnic or cultural traits, most of which don’t rise to a hill of artichokes anyhow. “Hands Up” motivates one to be more aware, more active, more dismayed when a dreadful occurs so you go beyond curious to appalled and angry.
Not meaning to be too good-boy-am-I, I am going to relate the most striking racial experience I’ve ever had. (Remember, I’m shallow and dismissive, so don’t expect too much profundity or merit.) It was in Boston. I was there with two friends, one a Massachusetts native and frequent visitor to Boston, the other a Philadelphian like me. We were in downtown Boston, in the middle of the tourist and commercial center, right near the Common, Newberry Street, Faneuil Hall, and where the city branches off to Paul Revere’s home in the north. It was lunchtime, and the Bostonian took us toa crowded, popular place. I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept saying there’s something odd and off-putting about the restaurant, and I wanted to leave. I had a bad feeling about the place. My friends this was no time for me, of all people, to be sensitive about his environment and make a fuss. I agreed and stayed. They were right. I can be as oblivious as a dead man to where I am on occasion. It was unusual that I felt something so strongly and irritatingly. All of a sudden, it dawned on me. I knew why I was uncomfortable. “Darling,” I said, using my Boston friend’s name, “I know what the trouble is. We’re having lunch in the middle of a major Eastern city, and there are only white people here. I don’t see one black, Asian, Indian, or Latino, not even among the staff. The busboy is white. The cooks I can see are all white. Where are we, some kind of Stepford café? It’s eerie. He said, “Calm down. This is Boston. ‘They’ would never come to this restaurant. ‘They’ have their own places to go.” “‘They? They?’ Where are we, in Alabama or some Western state that has a black population of one percent? Is Boston segregated? Is it common in the middle of the city in the middle of the day for people not to mingle because of race or pigment?” “Yes. Boston is de facto segregated. It would be the same in any restaurant.” “Unless we went for Asian food.” “But we didn’t, so shut up and eat your chicken salad with ‘no extra mayonnaise anywhere near it and no bacon.'” I did just that. And contentedly once I had my revelation and my hissy. It struck me that growing up in Philadelphia and being a constant visitor to New York and London, I had never lived in a segregated world. It may turn out that everyone in a room was white, or that, as when I saw Chris Rock’s last movie, I might be the only person devoid of pigment in the theater, but that’s happenstance. Outside on the street, there will be people of all kinds. Except for an odd quirk of fate, restaurants would have diners of many nationalities, races, and cultures. The Boston experience, which happened 29 years ago, so conditions may have changed, was an eye-opener.
So was “Hands Up,” which Joanna Settle directed. in a way that gave each actor free rein in terms of movement and tone. The show was an enlightening experience.
Live music by a band called Ill Doots punctuated scenes well, Thom Weaver’s set left room for roving while his lighting pinpointed key characters in key moments within their monologues. No costume designer is listed, but all of the performers were dressed convincingly for their parts.
“Hands Up” runs through Sunday, June 28, presented by Flashpoint Theatre at the Caplan Studio Theatre, on the 16th floor of 211 S, Broad Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-997-3312 or by visiting www.flashpointtheatre.org.