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New blood

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 development.

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 quickly.

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