Passage Theater Company is ending its 21st season with Pulitzer Prize winning-poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Deacons.” Although Komunyakaa has written librettos for operas and other stage works, “The Deacons,” which was commissioned by Passage, is his first play. The plot hinges on a combination of social and personal issues. Two men who had worked together in the 1960s as members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice (an underground African American militia group — unarmed pacifists who aided the civil rights movement by protecting the civil rights workers) were also in love with the same woman. Frank Junior (Count Stovall) has been unable to forgive his former friend, Troy Lewis (Gerard Catus), for stealing his love.
Troy has appeared at Frank Junior’s door some 35 years later only because Thelma, Troy’s wife and the woman they both loved, has died. As the two men try to reestablish their relationship what actually happened is revealed in bursts of unconnected narrative. Frank Junior finds it hard to forgive Troy for what he sees as the theft of his love. The past looks different to Troy, and part of the interest for the audience lies in trying to figure out what really happened, how these past events would look to a disinterested observer.
Although the two men were extremely close in their teens, their lives took different paths, and their values diverged: Troy served in Vietnam, Frank Junior did not. Frank Junior became a school teacher and cared deeply about his pupils, Troy worked for the post office. By the end of the first act, they have become so worked up over their differences that the audience is hard put to figure out how total disaster can be avoided.
When Troy’s daughter, Annie Mae, who has driven her father to Frank Junior’s house, appears in Act II, the rules of the game change. Because Annie Mae is not aware of all the details of the past, the two men feel they must behave themselves, and in the course of not letting on to Annie Mae their resentments and hostility, they begin to listen to each other, to try to understand, and to forgive.
There are characters important to the action that the audience never meets. Frank Junior’s parents were positive influences for both men, but Frank Junior’s present neighbors include teenagers who sit on the fence of his property, playing loud music both men find distasteful and harassing passersby. The two men’s reactions to these teenagers help define their values and their past motivations, and the daughter’s different reactions tell us something about the relationship between age and the way the world looks.
Count Stovall will be familiar to audiences for his appearance the last two seasons as Mr. Fezziwig in McCarter’s “A Christmas Carol. Letecia Moore, a young woman at the beginning of her acting career, takes on the role of Annie Mae.
Kemati Porter, who has been working at McCarter as the recipient of a Theater Communications Group New Generations Program grant, directs. The handsome single set, designed by Patrice Andrew Davidson, shows the inside of Frank Junior’s home, including the kitchen in which a welcoming supper is cooked. (One hopes that the price tag on the bottom of the presumably well-used casserole is gone by now.) William H. Grant III designed the lighting.
The skill of the actors, the twists of the plot, and most important, the interest of the situation it deals with, should keep audiences waiting to see what happens next. And, not surprising when the author is a noted poet, just listening to the language of the dialogue provides considerable delight.
The Deacons, Passage Theater, through Sunday, May 27, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, World premiere of drama by Yusef Komunyakaa commissioned and developed by Passage features the story of two men who served in the underground civil rights militia known as the Deacons for Defense. $25. 609-392-0766. www.passagetheatre.org.