Manchild in the Promised Land’
Speaking truth to power is a time-honored form of political activism. In 1965, Claude Brown shattered the screen of invisibility around America’s urban misery with his autobiographical novel, "Manchild in the Promised Land." Writing a chronicle of one Harlem boy’s life, this first generation Northern-born black American spoke, often in brutal terms, of how he successfully navigated the treacherous path to adulthood.
Now actor and playwright Joseph Edward has taken up Brown’s story, trumpeting its truth to new generations of Americans of all ethnicities. In the Passage Theater premiere of "Manchild in the Promised Land," which opened February 8, less than a week after Brown’s death, at age 64, Edward’s solo transformation of the epic novel into a 100-minute monologue swept its audience up in the challenges, hopes, and disappointments of a young man caught in a web of violence and drugs.
The show opens on a shrill and desperate note, amidst screams and gunshots. But as the confusion clears we learn that the shooting victim who lies bleeding on the fish shop floor is no more than a boy — 13-year-old Claude "Sonny" Brown. Already caught up in street gang life, Sonny has been stealing sheets and bedspreads off the washing lines of Harlem.
Actor Joseph Edward, who brought his one-man drama "Fly" to Passage last year, has played such notables as Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, and Nat Turner. He brings vivid qualities of naivete and bluster to his portrayal of the young Sonny. With his mobile face and vivid mimicry of all types of body language, he can convince us he’s a big-fisted pugilist, a strung-out drug addict, or even a world-weary hooker.
Edward can also portray a tooth-sucking father so strict that Sonny and his younger brother nicknamed "Pimp," agree that "even God’s scared of Daddy." A scene that recreates a meeting between Sonny and his brother in a Brooklyn jail is one of the show’s strongest: so vividly does Edward evoke each brothers I was ready to believe that two different men were present.
While Edward is adept at playing all the story’s roles, it is as Sonny that he gives us a guided tour along his roller-coaster life that eventually leads the grade-school dropout to Howard University and a publisher’s book advance.
Claude Brown was notorious for his brutally frank, profanity-laden text that told of the culture of violence, drugs, and prison that held Harlem’s young men in its grip. It was a culture in which manhood and violence were almost synonymous. Trapped in this troubled terrain, Sonny tells us how he’s "goin’ to have to kill someone too."
As a confused adolescent, we see Sonny sent up on criminal charges after his shooting. At the same time the judge is condemning him for "lying like a professional," his mother is smacking him about the head for evil behavior the likes of which she’s never seen before. Yet her son is simply adapting to the "Promised Land" to which she and her husband have delivered the family, seeking out something better than their life in South Carolina during Jim Crow.
Sent in fear to Wiltwyck School for boys in Ulster County, New York, Sonny is incredulous when Dr. Papanek, "probably the smartest and deepest cat I ever met," tells him he’s smart and that, with education, he could have a promising future. "Cats like me, we were going to jail," Sonny tells us in all simplicity.
The redeeming aspect of Claude Brown’s story is that reform school helped. Here the boy is introduced to the stimulation of reading and the marvels of jazz. Borrowing a record from an older boy, Sonny deems "Bird with Strings" "the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard in my life." This early connection to jazz eventually leads him to the piano which he masters by practicing up to eight hours a day.
Released from the school, Sonny is 17 years old and ready to retire from street life. His boyhood friend helps him say "no to jail, no to killing," and Sonny moves out of Harlem for his own self-preservation.
In the Village of the 1950s, Sonny works, attends night school, and becomes a jazz club devotee. His life takes an unexpected turn in the form of a love affair with Judy Strom, a young Jewish girl and Juilliard music student. Judy is naive in her conviction that her parents’ racial tolerance would extend to her liaison with an African-American. As Judy is spirited out of the picture after a six-month romance, the young man is devastated. Moving back to Harlem, he discovers that, as a jazz musician, he can finally command respect without violence.
This is a cautionary tale that some young people — perhaps less gifted as musicians and writers than was Claude Brown — may feel his is an over-optimistic portrait of opportunity for today’s black youth. Yet Edward’s towering conviction, both as an actor, teacher, and a role-model, carry the day.
For some time now it seems that a good chunk of the theater world has tried to compete with big budget motion pictures. Broadway is littered with lavish musicals strained to the breaking point with such high-tech special effects as working helicopters and gimicky puppets marching through the audience.
But "Florida Girls," written and performed by Nancy Hasty, reaches for something much more delicate, modest, and ultimately empowering.
Unlike movies or television in which every leaf of scenery, spurt of blood, or sweat on the hero’s brow is spoon fed to a passive audience, Hasty’s one-person show is more like radio drama. While she provides the outer structure of the story, it is the job of each audience member, within the realm of their own individual imagination, to fill in the color. Ultimately, the audience has almost as much creative input as Hasty herself.
Directed by Evan Bergman, "Florida Girls" is being staged as part of Passage Theater’s "Solo Flights" series. The last chance to catch it will be Wednesday, February 20, at 6 p.m., and Friday, February 22 at 8 p.m.
Hasty’s story is simple enough. Revolving around her memories of growing up in the 1950s in Crestview, Florida, with her parents and four sisters, she weaves her story of a family’s preparation for a small-town beauty pageant with loving charm and a keen eye for idiosyncratic characterization.
We are presented with Dee Dee and Christine, the two older sisters entered into the pageant, who practice walking as if they were "carrying a penny between their buttocks." Nancy, their younger sister with a persecution complex, has to scrub the rust off her grandmother’s hairpins while Dixie, the next younger sister, gets to search for runs in grandma’s stockings. Of course, Grandmother is not your typical doddering old gray hair, but a wild-eyed religious fanatic who peppers her speech with Bible quotations. The general effect is like a skewed "Waltons," told with a kind of hepped-up, yet down-home, humor.
"Florida Girls" encompasses over a dozen characters, all played by Hasty herself. With very little in the way of props or scenery, she conjures up wildly diverse characters with a simple shift of her hip or a flip of an unseen hairdo. One moment Hasty is a monster of a revival meeting preacher, snarling about the evils of beauty pageants where girls have the audacity to show their bare legs. In the next, she is one of the cock-sure Heinie boys, identical twin brothers, one who perpetrated some petty crime, but both of whom were suspended from high school because the principal couldn’t tell them apart.
Part of the charm of Hasty’s performance is that it is so low key. Like secrets told at the dinner table, she delivers her story in almost conversational tones. Rather than overplaying the weirdness of her characters, Hasty’s performance emphasizes their humanity and lets the audience draw its own conclusions. The general effect is one of discovery, like people-watching in a crowded town square.
Evan Bergman’s direction is light and natural. Each of Hasty’s movements throughout the play seems refreshingly cluttered with the business of everyday living. Bergman smartly steers clear of adding any self-consciously theatrical trappings by stacking each moment onto the next with clearly-defined actions and believable motivations.
Sure, a one-person play may be an acquired taste for theater-goers raised on "Miss Saigon" and "Cats." As a genre, it certainly requires more from the audience than merely paying for a ticket and sitting passively in the dark for 90 minutes. An imaginative investment must be made. But when the show is as good as "Florida Girls," you exit the theater feeling as if you’ve participated in something real. There’s a tingly feeling of shared endeavor that somehow tickles the soul.
Solo Flights Festival, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. $15 & $20.
Manchild in the Promised Land plays Sunday, February 24, 5 p.m. Florida Girls plays Wednesday, February 20, 6 p.m., and Friday, February 22, 8 p.m. TranceZenDance starring Johnny Kwon, plays Thursday, February 21, 6 p.m., and Saturday, February 23, 8 p.m. Notes of a Negro Neurotic, written and performed by Nancy Giles, plays Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, at 8 p.m.