"The History of Light” by Eisa Davis is having its New Jersey premiere at Passage Theater in Trenton. It is only one play, but it contains enough political and social issues as well as surreal elements to fill at least two plays. Unfortunately, the way they have been scrambled together and presented does not add up to a satisfying dramatic experience. There is not only too much plot pushed into the light in this story of two entwined inter-racial couples who grew up a generation apart, but more importantly there is too much that is left in the dark. This is not the fault of the visual production or more notably the fine lighting and projection design by Charles S. Reese, nor the excellent performances by the four actors.
Although the play is directed with earnestness by Jade King Carroll, it is egregiously florid and messy, and its structure is unnecessarily meandering. Possibly even more detrimental is that the characters are more inclined to rhetorical posturing than they are to honest speaking and real behavior. This makes it almost impossible to become empathetic to what is going on.
These faults, however, don’t make it hard to watch, only hard to swallow. The play’s central character is Soph (Chandra Thomas) a 30-something black singer/musician/composer who is thrown a curve while she is singing and playing one of her own songs on the piano in a nightspot. No reflection on Thomas, who is an appealing and engaging actress, but her singing is certainly not of the caliber that would necessarily get her a gig even in a dive. Nevertheless, she sings an interminable droning song (original, I presume) in its entirety (example of lyrics: “When we met I wasn’t feeling good, My heart lay still, in a coffin made of wood”) that mercifully ends as an ex-lover, the tall, good-looking 30-something and white Math (Steve Kuhel), appears unexpectedly at the nightspot. He is back after leaving her 10 years ago to go overseas to study on a Rhodes Scholarship.
The intimacy between Soph and Math was evidently sparked as much by their mutual physical attraction for each other as it was by their being passionate music majors at the same college. With a baby grand piano remaining a fixture on the otherwise handsome minimalist set designed by Matthew Campbell, there is a healthy dose of the classical piano repertoire (with nicely faked playing by Thomas and Kuhel) factored into the play.
Soph has more than second thoughts about rekindling the former-but-not-forgotten romance as her imagination not only takes her back to her childhood with Math as a pair of 10-year-olds playing tag in a playground, but through their young adult years as a couple before his departure. Amidst her reveries, she receives a package containing love letters covering 20 years (from the mid-1960s to the mid-’80s) from Suze (June Ballinger, also the executive artistic director at Passage), a white American woman living in France. Suze, who materializes in Soph’s mind when she is needed, apparently had a long and committed relationship with Soph’s father, Turn (Peter Jay Fernandez), a charismatic black political activist whom she met while they both attended college in the early 1960s.
What is not necessarily confusing, but simply dramatically confounding is the frequency of Soph’s not particularly substantive daydreams. The play, however, is flush with flashbacks prompted by the revelatory letters that detail Suze’s long-standing and carefully plotted affair with Turn, one that was more than simply frowned upon by her father (played by a bespectacled Kuhel so we don’t get confused).
Reconnecting with Soph is something that Math, who is no longer a musician but now a well-healed corporate type, would like to do. But is it what Soph wants after finding out, as she had once before, that Math is inclined to be more committed to a more permanent relationship with a white woman? Although Soph has been estranged from her father since early childhood (for reasons we never find out), the play concocts a convenient reason for them to re-connect.
Suddenly Soph is faced with the emotionally unsettling dilemma of whether to have an affair with a man who once walked away from her and at the same time open a relationship with a father who left her. This is a play that is as much of a challenge for the audience as it for the actors who, nevertheless, move back and forth through time and morph occasionally into different characters with aplomb.
“The History of Light” is unquestionably a socio-political message play, but playwright Davis’s attempts to balance the protracted pontificating in the text with pretentiously integrated stretches of lyricism is forced and awkward. As Turn, Fernandez makes a reasonably effective case for an activist who is as comfortable with political rhetoric as he is with romantic treacle.
Soph becomes the play’s most poignant character, and Thomas makes this character quite disarming in a fantasy flashback in which she does a stand-up as the wonderfully politically incorrect comedian Dick Gregory. As Suze, Ballinger slips in and out of the decades with grace and with the help of some youthful wigs. If there is anything that is ultimately admirable about Math it is that Kuhel is in synch with the basic preposterousness of his character’s behavior.
Playwright Davis, a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for “Bulrusher” (produced at Urban Stages in New York in 2006), obviously loves to play with time as much as play with language. In her defense, Davis has a lot to say about the socio-political implications of interracial relationships and the challenges that men and women face when thrown into its light. Unfortunately in the harsh light of the playwright’s politicized pulpit, the play’s message is altogether too glaring, making me wish that I had watched it through a pair of dark shades.
“The History of Light,” through Sunday, November 20, Passage Theater, in the Mill Hill Playhouse, corner of Front and Montgomery streets in downtown Trenton. $25. 609-392-0766.