All Things Entertaining and Cultural
May has been extraordinary in terms of Philadelphia theater. Not everything worked or qualified as a total success, hut much interesting subject matter was broached. In yet another attempt to catch up, I am going to briefly comment on a number of shows and give all of them a grade.
In fact, I am going to start with the grading. I shall include productions rated previously as well as unreviewed productions, open or closed.
ALL THE DAYS, McCarter Theatre — C- for play; A for production
ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE, Walnut Independence Studio on 3 — A
THE BALLAD OF TRAYVON MARTIN, New Freedom Theatre —C for play; B+ for production
*THE CHRISTIANS, Wilma Theatre — C- for play; B+ for production
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Curio Theatre — A-
THE EXPLORERS CLUB, Delaware Theatre Company, C-
*FULLY COMMITTED, Theatre Horizon — B
*THE INVISIBLE HAND, Theatre Exile — A-
*KISS ME KATE, Act II Playhouse, C-
MACHINAL, EgoPo Classic Theatre, B-
*MAN OF LA MANCHA, Bristol Riverside Theatre, A-
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, George Street Playhouse, B+
MOTH, Azuka Theatre, D for play; B for production
THE RADICALISATION OF BRADLEY MANNING, Inis Nua, B- for the play; A for the production
*THE SECRET GARDEN, Arden Theatre, A-
SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE, 11th Hour Productions —C for the play; B+ for production
1776, Media Theatre — A-
A SINGLE SHARD, People’s Light & Theatre Company — B- for the play; A for the production
TRANSLATIONS, Villanova Theatre, C+
WHITE GUY ON THE BUS, Passage Theatre, A+
THE BALLAD OF TRAYVON MARTIN — New Freedom Theatre, Philadelphia; closed May 22 — The almost sad irony of this production is it is the most powerful and poignant when it remains the most basic. Instead of strengthening salient, provocative points about Trayvon Martin, or about the number of black teenage boys killed under specious circumstances from days of lynching to days of shooting the unarmed, co-writer (with Thomas J. Soto) and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj indulges in Stürm and Drang that borders on gratuitous theatrical pyrotechnics. Sequences with intrinsic dramatic value are milked, extended, and exaggerated until they become flashier and showier than they are germane or affecting. It’s often theater without drama, or with overexpressed drama. This includes the amazingly limber Julian Darden and Stanley Morrison, who demonstrate the versatility of the human muscular system in Maharaj’s angular choreography but whose work in often an example of more bombast than substance.
Oh, there is a lot of legitimate emotion in Maharaj’s piece. A whole lot of it. When he sticks to sentiment and raw reaction to Trayvon’s fatal shooting by George Zimmerman, “Ballad” can be quite moving and elicit the anger and outrage Maharaj clearly aims for, in addition to making a clear-cut case that the entire incident that ended Trayvon’s life could have been avoided with cooler consideration and adult discipline. When he wanders into sentimentality, and the real and heartfelt cross into the overwrought and histrionic, Maharaj trades genuine intensity for uproar that borders in tantrum or fuss for fuss’s sake.
“Discipline” is the key word here. Maharaj showed so much of it, as author and director, in his production of “Little Rock” for Trenton’s Passage Theatre last season. His prodigious skill as both a theatrical documentarian and craftsman showed, and he brought renewed and moving conscientiousness to a known subject on which most minds are made up, the breaking of segregation barriers at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. He showed provocative incidents, and let statements speak for themselves. Poignancy came from a sum of “Little Rock’s” well considered and organized parts.
In “Ballad,” Maharaj seems to have given every idea and impulse he could conjure free rein. It leads to repetitiveness that doesn’t add more to what the audience knows or feels and fails to drive home information Even parental feelings, that were sufficiently established and struck their emotional note, especially as presented by the affecting and passionate Angel Brice and the sincere Shabazz Green who grieves, as he does everything else, with dignity and magnitude.
Hearing a mother lament about the future her son can never have, or a father expressing the care he took to make sure his son felt and appreciated paternal investment, care shared by both parents and imbued with concern and teamwork even though they were separated and lived in cities 250 miles apart, have genuine and heart-rending effect. As does Trayvon talking about his ambition to study aeronautics and be a pilot, while a picture of him with a commercial pilot who allowed him into the cockpit projects on screens that are a part of Parris Bradley’s functional set. These revelations are persuasive and universal in key ways. It’s when each of these dramatic assets turn into rants that cover no new ground on their third, fourth, and even fifth go-round, that the once heartbreaking and distressing becomes tiresome.
“The Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” so rich is so many ways, eventually wears out its welcome. Every time you think Maharaj is bringing his production to a close, one more character steps out to read a Tweet, usually two Tweets, one is support of Zimmerman and one that decries his act. “Ballad” goes on so long, I was aware I was mouthing “Shut up already” as the wonderful Amir Randall delivered Trayvon’s last speech. That passage was particularly poetic and should have brought me to emotional annihilation — It was beautifully written, and Randall, marvelous throughout, was direct and sincere in its delivery — but it had no payoff because I only wanted to play to end. As a listener, I could appreciate the content, intent, and excellent recitation of Trayvon’s closing statement. As an audience member, I was too spent, in patience as much as emotion, to give it its due. “Ballad” was just too much. Not in the good way, as in overwhelming or swirling with so much you can’t keep up, but in the way of excess and not knowing when enough is enough. (Don’t kid yourselves. I intuit the “Look who’s talking!” Especially as this is supposed to be an “impression.”)
The first time around, almost every scene lands its punch. Maharaj is obviously making a case that Zimmerman responded to skin pigment and not to danger when he became suspicious of and followed Trayvon. In “Ballad,” Trayvon is murdered, plain and simple, in Maharaj’s subjective — and convincing — narrative.
Thorough and gripping documentarian though Maharaj proved he was in “Little Rock,” he avoids some elements that might weaken his thesis and glosses over other points he wants to relegate as unimportant, inconsequential, or too unsubstantially biasing towards Trayvon. For instance, he skirts issues such as Trayvon being with his father in Sanford, and not with his Mom in Miami, because he was suspended from school and the mother sent him to his father for stricter guidance. He mentions though passingly, perhaps justifiably passingly, Trayvon’s habit of posing as a ‘gangsta” on social media pages. (What kid doesn’t make tough faces in the mirror, and to what end, usually innocent?) He has a few characters at the start of “Ballad,” which begins with a litany of 911 calls Sanford police received while Trayvon and Zimmerman were allegedly scuffling prior to Trayvon running and Zimmerman firing at him, but little of that seeps into the main body of the play.
No matter. The short shrift can be excused even if a deeper and more textured play may have resulted from addressing Trayvon’s less than admirable side. Maharaj does establish that all would have been well, and no one would know about Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman, if Zimmerman had followed orders from his Town Watch supervisor and left Trayvon alone. Because of Zimmerman’s precipitous and probably unnecessary reaction to seeing an unknown male black teen walking in a gated community, both the killed and the killer are etched in the public memory. Maharaj posits Trayvon as a lasting symbol for confrontations triggered by prejudice. He is probably correct in determining that.
There’s the rub. There’s so much good in “Ballad,” it’s a shame it is so mitigated by so much egregiously ostentatious overdoing. Maharaj has both of Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, wax eloquently about their son, in ways that illustrate he was a typical teenage boy and in ways that express their affection, admiration, and care of their son. If he could keep “Ballad” to three iterations of parental angst instead of multiple shouts and individual repeats by each member of the chorus, Maharaj would have gotten great mileage from Trayvon pleading with Zimmerman, “Don’t shoot me,” and yelling “I only want to get home” as he ran. He already made a point of Sybrina saying she told Trayvon to run if he ever had a gun pulled on him. (If only she’s told him to run in a zig-zag pattern!)
Maharaj’s (and Soto’s) portraits of Trayvon, Tracy, and Sybrina warm you towards them. Repetition alienates you, Maharaj makes Zimmerman and his supporters into buffoons, yet he allows some objectivity and is canny about the way he reveals that Zimmerman’s father was a judge and his mother from Peru. (Zimmerman has both Latino and black heritage from his mother, giving a strong case for examining rejection and self-hatred of his minority lineage, a path that remains unexplored in “Ballad.”) There’s room for depth, but Maharaj expends almost three hours of stage time by harping on the established rather than delving too far from the surface that suits the points he wants to make. Maharaj also shows signs of wanting to get some energy going into the Freedom Theatre auditorium. He practically invites the audience to join in as the cast chants slogans about Trayvon and Black Lives Matter, but no one in the matinee crowd I was part of joined in with more than rhythmic clapping at some dance sequences.
Maharaj ties Trayvon’s story to the 1955 kidnapping, torturing, and murdering of Emmett Till, a Mississippi 14-year-old whose innocence is clearer than Trayvon’s and whose case is more shameful in that Emmett did nothing but talk to and whistle at a white woman. (Of course, except for a reactionary scuffle, Trayvon was only walking down a street on which one bigoted man thought he didn’t belong.) “Ballad” deals with a subject America must explore, the often un- or insufficiently provoked response to black youths, and the taking of action when none is required. The criminal justice system is also called into question. George Zimmerman is the character that praises that system because it exonerated him after charging him and trying him. Maharaj through documentary characters, particularly special investigator Angela Corey, makes a case that Zimmerman was acquitted based on insufficient evidence that leaves his motives unclear and upholds Zimmerman’s position he was acting properly under Florida’s “stand your ground” laws which allow for extreme measures when acting in perceived self-defense.
Maharaj and Soto state clearly “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin” takes place in Trayvon’s mind just after he is fatally wounded. This explains some of the play’s structure but excuses none of its sloppiness. The authors also weave bit of Langston Hughes’s verses about dreams deferred and Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”, sometimes in ways that enhance, sometimes in ways that perplex.
Whatever the problems with Maharaj’s play or production, his cast was superb. Amir Randall, a student who hasn’t decided if acting will be his adult profession, is remarkably real and affecting as Trayvon. Randall conveys a seasoned actor’s confidence with the energy and physicality of a boy on the edge of adulthood. Even more than President Obama, Randall was Trayvon, and his performance added to the power and sentiment in Maharaj’s production. Assurance and nuance like Randall’s should be encouraged. He is considering careers with the Air Force and FBI. No doubt he would serve either or both well. He will also do well if he chooses acting.
Angel Brice can pull you into her grief as Sybrina Fulton. She has the vocal capacity to go from a visceral scream in one breath to a deep lament in the next. Shabazz Green shows great rectitude as a man who worked hard to build a relationship with Trayvon and to expose him to both the fun and serious considerations of late childhood. Green’s dignity makes it all the more touching when Tracy Martin breaks down in coping with the loss of his son.
Donna Cherry, in addition to displaying a gorgeous and exciting choral voices did a fine job in several parts, most notably as Angela Corey. Christopher David Roche is a fascinating George Zimmerman. Even while trading macho and/or racist braggadocio with his brother, Roche’s Zimmerman is kept on a normal, natural plane. He even, at times, seems naïve. Roche and Michael Fegley also do well in portraying a panoply of characters. The entire dramatis personae of “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” after all, is listed as Floridian #1, #2, etc. It’s to all of the company’s credit that lines between specific characters and general characfers remain clear.
Lee Evans’s lighting design enhanced Maharaj’s production. Millie Hiibel’s costumes were perfect.