Three years ago audiences at Crossroads Theater were treated to “EmergenceSee,” a solo dramatic narrative by writer-performer Daniel Beaty. Those who were fortunate enough to see him portray members of an African-American family plus an assortment of other characters (43 in all) have another opportunity to enjoy the talents of this gifted performance artist/actor who uses songs (he has a splendid singing voice), slam poetry, lyrical riffs, and even conventional dramatic devices to tell a compelling story. His new play “Through the Night” again uses his gifts in an extraordinary way.
“EmergenceSee” (which also had a successful run at the Public Theater and toured) focused on the legacy of slavery and its demoralizing imprint on African-Americans. It used the appearance of a slave ship that mysteriously rises out of the depths of the Hudson River right next to the Statue of Liberty as a catalyst to bridge the past with the present. “Through the Night” uses the faith and perseverance of Eric, a bright 10-year-old boy, as the vehicle for hope to change the psyche of the African-American male.
Within the abstractly evoked settings (mostly a series of impressionistic projections by Alexander V. Nichols) that include a health food store, a hospital waiting room, corporate offices, a mission, and other urban venues, Beaty portrays not only his six principal African-American males (each one a decade apart in age from 10 to 60), but also their wives, lovers, and girlfriends. Over the course of one night, we see how these interrelated males are affected by the pressures of family demands, social conditions and their cultural handicaps. These men are all desperate in different ways and each is on the verge of becoming either a victim of circumstance or, as Eric the 10-year-old budding scientist would have them be, heroes of the future.
Those who remember Beaty’s energy, vitality, and humor are likely to be even more responsive to the dramatic invention in “Through the Night.” Although Beaty gets credit for the dynamic prose and poetry, he is considerably enabled by the fine direction of Charles Randolph-Wright. Randolph-Wright, who wrote the highly successful “Blue,” which starred Phylicia Rashad and played a hugely successful engagement at the Roundabout Theater in 2006, brings fluidity and a well-orchestrated tempo to the action.
Beaty’s speedy but gracefully executed transitions from character to character are one thing, but it is his ability to also serve as a social/cultural observer that makes him an exceptional theater artist. For “Through the Night,” he has created characters that resonate with the disquieting anguish and lack of self worth that exists within many African-American males. The real beauty of Beaty’s play, however, is that we don’t feel bombarded by old and familiar messages, nor do we ever feel we are being lectured.
It is ironic that amongst all the males it is young Eric who searches for a formula for healing. He works diligently in his science laboratory above his father’s health food store. There he mixes and stirs various herbs for a tea that he is sure will cure the ills of all the men whose lives he touches. His father feels it is a lost cause teaching the African-Americans in his neighborhood to eat healthy food and take vitamins. “A health food store in the hood is like a fried chicken joint on a vegan compound.” He is about to close the shop. This will affect 30-year-old Dre, who has served time as a dealer and an addict, but now has a job at the shop. Dre’s problems are magnified as he waits in the hospital waiting room where his seriously ill girlfriend is giving birth.
Beaty is equally adroit in delving into the emotional conflicts within characters who seem, at first, to be well adjusted. There is the dyslexic 20-year-old Twon, who has survived growing up in the projects, graduated from high school, and is now off to college, and Isaac, the 40-year-old corporate executive (“I’m Isaac and I am the senior vice president of marketing. And be forewarned, I am an alien disguised as a well-adjusted black man.”). Then there is the 60-year-old 300-pound diabetic, Bishop Saunders, who is addicted to soul food and HoHos. “Through the Night” is subtitled “a soul aria.” Addressing this, Beaty reveals the moral and emotional nature of his characters with a depth of feeling and honesty that makes us believe that he has attempted to touch their souls.
“Through the Night,” through Sunday, February 21, Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $40 to $65. 732-545-8100 or www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.