Intriguing works-in-progress at the PBRC
by Bill Rodriguez
FIRST LOOK. Plays by Rose Weaver, Nehassaiu deGannes, Paula Caplan, and Ricardo
Pitts-Wiley. At the Providence Black Repertory Company through May 26.
Good new plays accomplish something that great familiar plays cannot: they
heighten our senses with the unanticipatable, surprise us with fresh
experience. First Look at Providence Black Repertory Company isn't
exactly "a first look at new playwrights and their new plays" as billed, since
most of these playwrights and their offerings have been workshopped before. But
the current versions of the four presentations are each an interesting -- and,
in one case, a relentlessly gripping --excursion at this point in their
While it still needs some shaping, Rose Weaver's Silhouette of a
Silhouette is the most ambitious and successful venture of the evening,
weaving some powerful scenes and exchanges. Remarkably, it does so as a staged
reading, unlike the three accompanying 10-minute plays that are performed
without scripts. Donald W. King directs more than a dozen actors in this
mini-saga of a family's painful struggle out of cycles of self-destruction.
Rousing gospel singing pumps up the proceedings like a heartbeat. Like solo
choruses, angry consciences giving voice to mythology, advice and reprimands
come from Doleful Creature (Raidge), red-winged Prosecutor (Shenge Ka Pharaoh)
and the African-painted Dog Ghost (Bravell Smith).
Clearly observed and commandingly written characters emerge from first-rate
performances. Daddy Lewis (Kevin Butler) is the Atlanta bootlegger patriarch, a
soft-touch to the neighborhood but a bully to his son Bobby (played by Kamali
Feelings as older and Walter Perez as younger). "There is no American Dream for
a narrow dreamer," he is told, so his dreams are as big as Fort Knox. Only
money can get you what you want, he is convinced.
Son Bobby can't achieve what his father expects of him, so his downward spiral
into drugs is relentless. Even the love of Diane (Abria Smith) can't rescue
him. One night they drive off into the country and Bobby ends up wandering into
the woods, sick and hallucinating. There we meet another desperate couple,
Cecil and Lucy, sympathetically portrayed by Mark Carter and Elizabeth Keiser.
Fired as a foreman, the angry drunk feels like white trash and keeps his meek
wife under his thumb. After Bobby stumbles up to their door asking for a glass
of water, with Diane trailing behind, potential violence crackles in the air.
Since Cecil is written as a cartoon, although Carter rounds him out pretty
well, the weakly motivated, predictable resolution is a disappointment as
drawn. But this is a work-in-progress, after all, and we can expect the end to
rise to the level of much of the middle by the time we see it fully staged.
The three shorter works are performed first, before an intermission.
The Basketball Warrior, written and directed by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley,
has been staged before as part of A Secret Meeting of Black Men. The
monologue is an extended simile, an informal essay on how urban basketball
provides rites of passage that used to be accomplished by African warrior
traditions. The play seems to over-explain itself in this version, needing the
diverting animation provided by its earlier basketball court setting, with
other men listening and responding. Here it is a busy black businessman
speaking, smartly suited and interrupting a cell-phone conversation while he
resumes an evidently interrupted address to us. Raidge delivers the speech with
understanding as well as impassioned intensity. But pulling these words out of
their context, with no one reacting to the ideas, takes us in the wrong
direction, toward the cerebral rather than the communal.
The Test, by Paula Caplan and directed by King, takes place on death
row. Cleveland (Pitts-Wiley) is an older inmate, resigned to his execution
because he has found faith. He has been teaching Bradley (Bravell Smith) to
read the Bible. The young man is a bit dim-witted and killed a man out of
misunderstanding a situation, much as he has to less lethal effect all his
life. The two-scene playlet doesn't overstay its story, and while it's here to
deliver a message, the payoff grows out of character and with enough lack of
inevitability to break your heart.
A compelling non-naturalistic departure is Dreaming the Differential,
written by Nehassaiu DeGannes and directed by Pitts-Wiley. She also has work in
the current women's playwriting festival at Perishable Theatre, is performing
the role of Rose Rose in The Cider House Rules at Trinity Rep (where she
is a conservatory student), and is a published poet. Poetry is evident in this
philosophizing, abstract discussion among three characters named X, You, and Z,
played by Raidge, Abria Smith, and Feelings. Respectively sporting T-shirts
emblazoned with a black power fist, a musical note, and an Arabic word, they
are impassioned, compassionate, and thoughtful, in that order. The exercise is
not as schematic as I make it sound, and there is a hearty dorm room-discussion
fervor to the interplay.
First Look runs only through Saturday, May 26, so you better look