`Second Line" is a spiritual and musical tradition with African roots
prevalent from the 1880s to the Harlem Renaissance years and into the
1950s. The Second Line originated with the West African belief that
the spirit of the deceased is "active" and should be placated. A
"second line" of spectators joins the funeral procession; animated,
dancing, strutting, clapping, hollering, and generally "appeasing" the
spirit of the deceased.
– These excerpts from the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance were
provided by the Passage Theater.
`Second Line" by African-American Seret Scott is an intimate love
story set against a decade-spanning portrait of political change and
social turbulence in America during the middle of the 20th century. It
is also based on the playwright’s personal experiences as well as a
tribute to her mother who went to Vietnam as a social worker in 1973.
Now that’s a lot of heavy duty material to stuff into a 90-minute play
with only two people.
But it is good to report that Scott has probably exceeded her
expectations with this vibrantly written, beautifully acted, and
effectively directed play that tells the story of two impassioned
African-Americans college students who fall in love in the early
1960s. Although deeply in love, one of them feels that their
conflicting convictions necessitates a separation. This is the
difficult decision they make, as they move on to pursue different
paths in their determination to be assets to themselves and to their
race. This is at the heart of this play developed and work-shopped at
both McCarter Theater and Passage Theater Company, where it is now
having its world premiere.
Bennie (Billy Eugene Jones) and JoJo (April Yvette Thompson) are both
scholarship students at the University of Pennsylvania who, not
surprisingly, find one another among a sea of white faces. Their
relationship blossoms and deepens even as their individual sense of
mission begins to act as a wedge. Scott’s key (no pun intended) to
making the drama as involving as it is is to shift our attention back
and forth between Bennie and JoJo. As a result, we see how their lives
and careers evolve and take a defining shape.
Bennie serves as the play’s narrator as well as the bridge between
their juxtaposed experiences. Bennie’s awareness that "The black
middle class isn’t privileged," and "You have to fight your way
through college," is contrasted against JoJo’s pull to go south ("the
real battleground is the south"). As we follow Bennie from graduation
to becoming a successful stock broker and getting involved in another
short-lived romance, we also see Jojo’s life as it unfolds with her
commitment to protest and to become a leader in the Civil Rights
Movement struggle for freedom and justice.
Jones, who appeared in the Broadway productions of "A Raisin in the
Sun" and "Gem of the Ocean" and recently appeared in the Hurricane
Katrina-themed "Waiting for Godot" at the Classical Theater of Harlem,
gives not only a sturdily secure performance as the success-oriented
Bennie, but invests the role with an impassioned sensitivity.
Thompson’s performance is especially touching in how it reflects her
developing maturity over the decades and from continent to continent.
Although best known for her directing work (she is an associate artist
of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and directed productions at
major regional theaters) Scott’s writing style is so eloquent and her
characters so rich and vital that we never feel the need for others to
give this story life, breath and depth.
The play’s most poignant and impassioned consideration, however, are
the intense but conflicted feelings that Bennie and JoJo continue to
feel for each other. He needs her and she needs validation. This is
the major dynamic in this play that has been nicely and cleverly
directed by Regge Life. The action takes place in an uncluttered
bi-level setting (cleanly designed by Ryan Scott) that allows the two
stories to unfold and occasionally overlap. This play is a winner and
will undoubted have a future in regional theaters, possibly
– Simon Saltzman
"Second Line," through October 29, Passage Theater Company at the Mill
Hill Playhouse, Front & Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $25. 609-392-0766