`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

Off-Broadway.

– Simon Saltzman

"Second Line," through October 29, Passage Theater Company at the Mill

Hill Playhouse, Front & Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $25. 609-392-0766

or www.passagetheatre.org

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