A slave ship has mysteriously risen out of the depths of the Hudson River right next to the Statue of Liberty. Understandably, the media is quick to cover the story. But it is the profound effect that this phenomenon has on an African-American family and on an assortment of other characters that resonates with specificity in this engaging and terse solo dramatic narrative written and performed by Daniel Beaty through Saturday, December 9, at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick.
In 75 minutes, Beaty uses songs, slam poetry, lyrical riffs, and impassioned pleas to make his point about the legacy of slavery and its demoralizing imprint on African-Americans. Yes, it’s a message play, but Beaty makes it quite clear that his goal is to elevate through remembrance (Remembrance is the name of the ship) the consciousness of all the descendents of slavery (“taking care of the slave ship in your mind”).
“Emergence-See!” was a hit when it played the Public Theater a year ago and Beaty has subsequently been performing it around the world. The current production at Crossroads Theater is bare bones but Beaty, nevertheless, fills up the space niftily with his terrific voice, plenty of energy, vitality, humor, and most of all dramatic invention.
Although “Emergence-See!” stands on its own as a cleverly devised and beautifully executed performance piece, it also has much in common with the slam poetry that propelled “Bridge and Tunnel” and the family connections that tied together a history in “The Blue Door.”
At the heart of Beaty’s story is one family consisting of two brothers, Rodney and Freddie, and their father, Reginald, a dispirited professor whom they discover has ventured out and boarded the ship. When the news breaks, the brothers wonder what motivated their father to go off to the ship. Rodney, an intense poet, was intending to go to a cafe to read his poem, and Freddie, who is gay, was busy mooning over this guy with dredlocks. Rodney’s confrontation with a police officer who stops his car is one of the play’s best moments as we hear Rodney’s actual conversation with the cop even as Rodney’s imagination reveals how he would really have liked to respond. It’s a wonderful device that Beaty might have used again.
The action moves back and forth from Liberty Island to the poetry cafe as Beaty engages us with those who express themselves through their personalized poetry and those who are more inclined to vent their feelings as part of a collective of diverse African-Americans. Beaty is expert at creating the often amusingly nuanced vocabulary and countenance of about 40 characters including a Jamaican man, a homeless man with memories of his mama’s pound cake, a grandmother, a prostitute, a young choir boy, a young girl with AIDS, and an African tribal chief who tells us that “the ship is filled with the bones of your ancestors.”
Although no director is given credit in the program, Beaty’s performance is well crafted and staged. He makes the transitions from character to character and place to place clear and easy to follow. One can’t help but be impressed with his vocal dexterity, an art that allows his men and women, young and old, gay and straight, to ring consistently true. But it remains for the father to best express the play’s theme and Beaty’s mission: “Beyond the pain we are still here. Come here to the truth that we know.”
Although some projections would have greatly enhanced Beaty’s presentation, he deftly embodies and defines his characters with exuberance, poignancy, and a seemingly limitless display of versatile body language. If the play is flawed with perhaps too much moralizing and preaching and too little character development, it is also filled to the brim with a talented artist’s gift to enthrall his audience.
“Emergence-See!,” through Saturday, December 9, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-545-8100.
For those who didn’t see John Patrick Shanley’s Tony award-winning play on Broadway, the George Street production, under the direction of Anders Cato, affords an excellent opportunity to experience it. It remains stunning in its impact. I wish I could say that the cast, though competent, was able to show all the subtle shades and nuances that their roles provide. Cato, who ably directed both “I Am My Own Wife” and “Souvenir” at this theater last season, has also made a palpable error in the final scene: one that compromises a key component, but more about that later.
Although the play is set in a Bronx Irish-Italian Catholic school in 1964, it invokes a contemporary and topical issue. The quandary at the heart of the play is whether Sister Aloysius (Ann Dowd), a firm believer in the inflexible directives and moral certainties that guide her in her faith and in her calling as a teacher, can get the goods on a well-liked young priest, Father Flynn (Dylan Chalfy), whom she suspects of having an unnatural affection for the school’s sole black youth.
In order to validate her suspicions, she persuades the disbelieving Sister James (Meghan Andrews) to keep an eye on Father Flynn. The question remains whether the kindly and gentle Sister James, whose generosity of spirit and love of teaching appears to be in constant conflict with the sterner absolutes that govern her superior, is able to ally herself with Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is unswerving in her resolute determination to out and oust the popular Father Flynn. The wonder of Shanley’s script is that it leaves room for the play’s three actors to baffle us even as they convince us of their integrity at different times.
Dowd commendably maintains the stiff-necked severity and autocratic nature of Sister Aloysius, but seems rigidly opposed to revealing anything more. Never is Sister Aloysius’s wry and starchy sense of humor given much opportunity to glimmer through Dowd’s rigid, single-minded portrayal. It is certainly a choice, but her one-dimensional severity, except for an unconvincing reversal at the end of the play, lacks the nuance that might make us look deeper into her motives. (Cherry Jones portrayed Sister Aloysius on Broadway).
The play is best served by the convincing performance of Chalfy, who plays Father Flynn, a fighter who not only steadfastly denies her charges, but who also courageously, if also defensively, embeds philosophical moral tales in his Sunday sermons in the face of Sister Aloysius’ relentless pursuit. One of the play’s more arresting elements is how important it is for Sister Aloysius to use all the cunning she can muster when she confronts Flynn knowing she is in a world controlled by men.
Andrews adds a quirkily unnerving layer, as well as a vocally grating quality as Sister James, who is severely conflicted by her superior’s unshakable position and the lack of substantiating evidence. One of the play’s most compelling scenes involves a visit to Sister Aloysius by the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (nicely acted by Rosalyn Coleman) in which she achingly reveals some family truths that unwittingly serve to empower Sister Aloysius.
The play, given a handsome revolving setting by Hugh Landwehr that takes us from the Catholic school’s garden courtyard to the head teacher’s office, remains purposely ambiguous and enigmatic when it comes to the priest’s innocence or guilt. With or without the perfect cast, Shanley’s play grips us with its provocative theme: the pitfalls of self-righteousness and the arrogance of being “the decider” in the light of doubt.
“Doubt,” through Sunday, December 23, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717.