Collective Consciousness Theatre

Collective Consciousness Theatre Delivers a Knockout

Review of The Royale, Collective Consciousness Theatre

In certain contexts, “The Royale,” best-known perhaps from its memorable description in Ralph Ellison’s important and influential novel Invisible Man, was a humiliating contest that white men imposed upon black men—usually servants or simply people rounded up for the occasion. The black men—about half a dozen—were blindfolded and put in a ring to knock each other around to the spectators’ entertainment. The last man standing got to scoop up as much of the money thrown into the ring as he could carry.

When his trainer Wynton (Gregoire Mouning) tells Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) about his experience in “The Royale” in Marco Ramirez’s play of that name, it’s during the lead-up to Jackson’s heavyweight championship bout with Bixby, the white champ. Bixby has agreed to fight Jackson, a black man, on the condition that, win or lose, Bixby gets 90% of the take. Max (Ian Alderman), Jackson’s savvy manager, thinks Jackson can do better—if he bides his time and waits.

Jackson is through waiting. Convinced he truly is the best boxer living, Jackson knows that the sports press won’t acknowledge that fact so long as there’s an existing champ. And, since this is happening in the 1900s in the era of Jim Crow, the obstacles to a black man fighting a white man in the ring as an official championship bout are many. The fact that Bixby has agreed, even in such insulting terms, indicates the seriousness of Jackson’s challenge. Wynton tells Jackson he would “fight the son-of-a-bitch for free.”

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Christopher Bethune) trains, in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by Jenny Nelson (photos courtesy of CCT)

In its production at Collective Consciousness Theatre, The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, is a knockout. The small playing space is dominated by a very convincing cast that put across the drama, the wry humor, the sheer physicality, and, at last, the incredible tension leading up to that final bout. It’s a winner.

It would be hard not to root for Jackson right from the start. Based on the charismatic boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, Jackson, as played by Bethune, does the original proud. He’s got great looks, a boyish smile, and the cockiness older viewers will remember from Muhammad Ali, a way of making every fight seem in the bag long before it happens.

When we first meet Jackson he’s in the ring with yet another pretender, called “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester), and the scene is played out with wonderfully precise timing. Rather than pretend to hit one another, the actors make arm movements and stamp their feet—which puts across a sense of the power of the punches, while the recipient reels. Mostly it’s Hawkins doing the reeling, but he manages to lend a few punches that impress Jackson—before the champ goes in for the kill. Which he does after toying with Hawkins in a credible, engaging manner.

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

“Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Jackson’s considerable charm is palpable as, after the fight, he gets past Hawkins’ resentment and guardedness and hires him as his sparring partner. Jackson, in his fine suits and expensive tastes, is a tough act to manage, and Alderman is a perfect fit in putting across Max’s carnival barker style, his dogged dedication, and his casual racism. At times, Wynton has to caution Jackson in his presumptions, and Mouning exudes canny wisdom. When Jackson hears there have been whites trying to get into arenas armed, he is more upset about the fact that Wynton and Max have teamed up to keep the fact from him than he is frightened by the threats. Jackson’s “you working for him or me?” to Wynton bites hard.

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

Jay “The Sport” Jacskon (Christopher Bethune), Max (Ian Alderman)

So compelling is this small cast in taking us into the manly world of prizefighting, we may tend to forget the prim, well-dressed woman seated at the back of the stage (Tamika Pettway). Eventually she will arrive—on the very eve of the championship fight—and throw shade upon all that Jackson has accomplished.

She’s not (as you might expect) a woman with a dirty secret from Jackson’s past, but rather his sister, Nina. And what she has to say is a heartfelt fear that, if Jackson wins, the sight of a black man rising above his station will bring down reprisals against innocent blacks and children, such as her sons, Jackson’s nephews. She sees Jackson, in his ambition and self-love, as concerned only with himself and his fame. But in Jackson’s view, the stakes are higher; he sees himself fighting as his sister’s champion, to strike a blow against cultural ideals restricted to white standards. In some ways, the fight between brother and sister eclipses the championship bout and The Royale dramatizes that quite well with Pettway giving Nina a single-minded purpose quite the match for her brother’s.

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

Nina (Tamika Pettway); Wynton (Gregoire Mouning), “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester)

To the victor goes the spoils in a Battle Royale, and here the victims are the victor’s too.

 

The Royale
By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Jenny Nelson

Assistant Director/Choreographer: Michelle Burns; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emily Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda and Jamie Burnett; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Producer: Dexter J. Singleton

Cast: Ian Alderman, Christopher Bethune, Oliver Sai Lester, Gregoire Mouning, Tamika Pettway

Collective Consciousness Theatre
March 28-April 14, 2019

What's Up and What's Coming

Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre opened Carl Cofield’s lively, hilarious, and hi-tech version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which features a very engaging cast. The show is up until April 6th. My review can be found here.

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

 On Monday, Long Wharf Theatre announced three of the four shows of its 2019-20 season, which will be the theater’s 55th. As the season that precedes 2020-21, which will be the inaugural season of recently hired Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, next year was billed as transitional, as Padron spoke of Long Wharf’s will to “lead a revolution that will redefine American theater.” Citing managing director Joshua Borenstein’s comment that “all great movements have local beginnings,” Padrón outlined the three characteristics his team looked for in choosing plays: 1.“Undeniable excellence,” 2. Plays that reflect the demographics of the city of New Haven (which is over 42% white, over 35% black, over 27% Hispanic or Latinx, and over 4% Asian); 3. Plays that are “in conversation with the world.” Padrón said, “the world is on fire,” and he sees theater as “a catalyst for social justice.” In terms of emergent strategies, theater can either be advancing and progressing, or regressing into stagnation. Padrón wants Long Wharf to be known for its inclusiveness, as a theater that welcomes everyone, for its artistic innovation, and for its ability to forge connections with community.

First up, from October 9 to November 3, is On the Grounds of Belonging by Ricardo Pérez González, directed by his longtime collaborator David Mendizábal of the New York-based Sol Project, of which Padrón is founder and artistic director, and which partnered with Yale Repertory Theatre on El Huracán, the opening show of the Rep’s current season. The play is a “breathtaking new story of forbidden love in 1950s’s Jim Crow Texas.”

In the Thanksgiving to Christmas slot is “a modern adaptation of a classic work” (that’s not the title, though sounds as if it might be). The play, yet to be announced, will be one “in conversation with new work,” in a production that “breathes new life” into an important, older work of theater.

The new year begins with I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, a Yale grad, with a director still to be determined. The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play “about survival and identity” of a transgender person in East Berlin during and after World War II, with a single actor playing over 40 roles. February 5-March 1, 2020.

Mid-March to mid-April is The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. In its third production, the play, “inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant,” will be directed by Ralph B. Peña, a founding member and current artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater. March 18-April 12, 2020.

Work by a female playwright and a female director will by featured in The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, a Yale grad and member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and directed by Madeline Sayet, a CT native noted for her work incorporating the stories and traditions of the Mohegan tribe. The play is “a thrilling underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in 1980s China.” May 6-31, 2020.

This week the Long Wharf’s current season continues with tonight’s press opening of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (in Robert Fagles’ translation), directed by Brooklyn-based theater person Whitney White. It’s a two-person play with Rachel Christopher as The Poet and Zdenko Martin as The Muse and runs unti April 14. My review can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Yale Cabaret opens its fourth annual Satellite Festival, which runs Thursday, 3/28, through Saturday, 3/30. My preview can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, March 28, Collective Consciousness Theatre opens its third and final show of the 2018-19 season, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, a play set in the racially segregated world of boxing in the early 20th century. The show runs 3/28-3/30, 4/4-4/6, and 4/11-4/14. For Brian Slattery’s preview go here.

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Something in the Air

Review of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

 Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre’s second feature of the season, is billed as a “comedy-thriller,” centered on workplace racism—in both its more and less deliberate registers. The play, directed by Elizabeth Nearing, is more comedy than thriller, providing many a knowing chuckle about the way office politics takes its tone from favoritism and ostracism and how easily racism plays into both.

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

At CCT, the play provides a plum role for local actress Gracy Brown. She plays Jaclyn, an African American employee—for the past sixth months—of Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), the kind of white boss who hires a woman of color as a way of doing a “good thing,” then regrets it and looks for reasons to get rid of her. As Jaclyn, Brown’s capable presence holds our sympathy even when she’s being rather unsympathetic to a timorous patient, Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh). Because Jaclyn is free—at least at the start—of ulterior motives, she is a welcome contrast to Dr. Williams and his recently promoted office manager Illeen (Susan Kulp), who open the play conniving against Jaclyn before we even meet her. When she arrives, Jaclyn carries herself with a no-nonsense work ethic that does seem a bit hard-edged after the doctor’s touchy-feely flattery of Ileen. By insisting on being called “Jaclyn,” rather than the doctor’s preferred nickname, “Jackie,” Jaclyn strikes her boss as the kind of worker that doesn’t “fit in” with the office as he’d have it be.

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

One of the play’s best comic features is how Jaclyn subtly turns the tables. She begins the play at a distinct disadvantage—she’s been out sick for five days, due to—we’re told by Williams—anxiety attacks and, in her own view, the ill effects of toxins in the office. Her return is met by Williams’ efforts to get enough bad notes on her to get her transferred. Illeen, who may live to regret how easily she lets the doctor turn her into a stoolie, takes on the role of spying while denying it. In the early going, the two office assistants show traces of the friendliness that, until now, they used with one another—as Ileen fondly recalls Jaclyn’s “yammering,” and Jaclyn—while complaining relentlessly about how messy and disorganized Ileen is—entertains her colleague with tales of her noisy Mexican neighbors. Eventually we will see how much of Jaclyn’s behavior is a form of performance.

The escalation of the tensions between them—with Jaclyn trying to bedevil her colleague at times and, at other times, making conciliatory gestures—almost goes a bit too far, with Ileen becoming the anxious one, confused and scared by Jaclyn’s mood-swings. It’s to Kulp’s credit that, as Ileen starts to veer off her usual ingratiating manner, we can believe how swiftly she is at her wits’ end (all the action takes place in four days). Ileen emerges as a woman without much mind or backbone of her own, easily caught up in her boss’s machinations while unable to be the tough-minded office manager he believes he needs.

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

As Doctor Williams, Ethan Warner-Crane has a distracted manner, as if he’s barely aware of the people who work for him as more than extensions of his own day. He’s boyish as befits a boss who is younger than his employees, and the women’s efforts to fatten him up with sweet rolls and pecan pie, while each accuses the other of having a crush on him, serves to remind us that sexism is also a part of the workplace dynamic. Ageism comes in a bit more subtly with the way everyone treats Mrs. Saunders as though a child not fully in possession of her faculties. Meanwhile, offstage, there are Rose’s son and Ileen’s husband and son, who all provide repeated insights about how Jaclyn’s behavior is a symptom of the anger “her people” feel about slavery.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

There are symptoms aplenty on view here, certainly. But what’s the cure? Johnson’s play doesn’t have any answers, perhaps, but it does end where we can see what might have been clear to an unbiased viewer all along: Jaclyn is the better worker, if only her boss would treat her as a person and not a problem.

 

Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Producers: Jenny Nelson and Dexter J. Singleton; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Molly Flanagan

Cast: Gracy Brown, Susan Kulp, Debra Walsh, Ethan Warner-Crane

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-February 3, 2019

Rasheeda Speaking Starts Tonight

Preview of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Collective Consciousness Theatre returns tonight with its second show of the season: Joel Drake Johnson’s comedy-thriller Rasheeda Speaking, which runs Thursday through Saturday for the next three weekends: January 17th-19th, January 24th-26th, and February 1st-3rd, at Erector Square in New Haven, at 8 p.m.

The play was a success Off-Broadway, directed by Cynthia Nixon, with Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins in the main roles of Ileen and Jaclyn, two office assistants working for a surgeon who manages to poison their working relationship. Collective Consciousness Theatre (CCT) is a “community-based theatre dedicated to social change” and calls Rasheeda Speaking “an incisive and shocking dark comedy” that “examines the realities of so-called ‘post-racial’ society.” The production features Susan Kulp, of New Haven Theater Company, as Ileen and, as Jaclyn, Gracy Brown who has appeared in Elm Shakespeare productions in Edgerton Park, most recently Love Labour’s Lost.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Those who saw the first show of CCT’s season, the tense and expansive, character-driven drama Jesus Hopped the A Train will find a surprising transformation in the theater at Erector Square. Gone is any sign of the twin outdoor penitentiary cells of that show’s set. The wizards of CCT—set-designer David Sepulveda and lighting designer Jamie Burnett—have created the bland, placid space of a doctor’s office, complete with wall-paintings I swear I’ve seen on the walls at Yale-New Haven. The space is realistic enough to make you check if you’ve brought your insurance card.

That level of realism is important to this show, which enacts the kind of office shenanigans that have become very familiar from shows like The Office (in both its British and American versions). As Artistic Director Dexter J. Singleton put it, the aim is to be “as professional as possible on a shoestring budget.” In terms of set, the goal has been achieved. And, in light of the previous show at CCT, the set might make you consider if this modern workplace, its twin big desks in an L, is really so different from a prison yard’s adjacent cells.

At the dress rehearsal I attended, the production’s director Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf Theatre’s Community Engagement Manager, spoke of the play as geared to address “the indignities of the office place,” particularly the “microaggressions” that soon become their own rationale. The play runs without intermission for about 100 minutes, taking us through four days in which tensions between Ileen and Jaclyn begin and run their harrowing course.

At the beginning of day one, Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane) confers with Ileen, who he has just made office manager, about her co-worker. Jaclyn has been out on sick leave for five days and is due back that morning. Williams, who’s a bit timid, a surgeon who might not be at his best managing staff, takes the opportunity to let Ileen know that he needs some documentation of dereliction of duty on Jaclyn’s part so that he can convince HR to transfer her elsewhere. He has a great candidate in mind for her job and Jaclyn, he insists, doesn’t really “fit in.” Ileen tries to shrug off his complaints by taking her co-worker’s part, but eventually she’s on his page, cautioned that they must avoid any playing of “the race card.” So, before Jaclyn arrives, we’ve got an “us against them” workplace that could become incendiary. Jaclyn, we soon see, is a no-nonsense type with more than a few complaints of her own—the toxins in the office, the fact that Ileen has neglected the office’s many plants (needed to help with those toxins), and that Ileen—whose desk is something of a mess—has managed to let her work spread to Jaclyn’s desk. The two keep up banter and friendly jousts, but we’re ready to see this get ugly.

For costume designer Carol Koumbaros, who has been with CCT since the production of Topdog/Underdog, the show’s lack of intermission presents an interesting challenge. Ileen and Jaclyn barely leave the stage and yet we have to be given a sense of four distinct days. She has achieved this in subtle differences to basic “uniformlike” outfits, which, she noticed, tend to be the norm at medical offices these days. Indeed, to all appearances—including the sliding window outside of which patient Rose (Debra Walsh) impatiently demands attention—this is a place of tranquil calm. Like most workplaces, appearances can be deceiving. Mismanagement—or what Shakespeare called “misrule”—is the order of our day and here it sets up a heap of ammunition and then sets fire to it.

Who and what will carry the day? The collusion between Ileen and Dr. Williams, or Jaclyn’s self-defense? Head on over to Erector Square one of the next three weekends to find out.

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Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-19, January 24-26, February 1-3, 2019
Erector Square
Building 6 West, 2nd floor, Studio D
319 Peck Street
New Haven

Tickets are $25 Adults, $10 students and available for all performances at: collectiveconsciousnesstheatre.org.

On the Inside

Review of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Collective Consciousness Theatre 

Collective Consciousness Theatre, the black box theater in Erector Square with a penchant for urban dramas and works by authors of color, is back with its first production of the season: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sobering Jesus Hopped the A Train. First produced in 2000, the play sets up a situation where crime and punishment combine with a story of charisma and faith, where the legal system and a higher law meet.

Incarceration is a way of life, particularly for African Americans in the U.S., but does it serve any purpose? The story focuses on the interaction between two men locked-up in protective custody. One, Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Riggins), is an avowed serial killer trying to avoid extradition to Florida where he would be put to death, while also telling anyone who will listen about his faith in Jesus; the other is Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), a somewhat confused youth accused of attempting to assassinate the leader of a religious cult who, Angel says, brainwashed his best friend. The shooting was not intended to be lethal, Angel claims, and was a just action. The two prisoners meet during the recreational hour they spend in outdoor cells divided by a narrow walkway. Jenkins never misses his hour outdoors and puts the time to use as best he can, including vigorous exercise while reciting the names of the books of the Bible backwards.

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

In this gripping production directed by Dexter J. Singleton, the personalities of the two men dominate the play. Mostly contentious, the two find terms of uneasy fellowship, though most of the sympathy tends to run in one direction only, from Lucius to Angel. The play establishes a simple contrast that yields much complexity: Lucius is by far the worse criminal, but he has a view of life—now that he’s likely to lose his—that has redeeming value; Angel has lost his faith in God, but his crime, in his view, was a blow for goodness. He’s desperate to find an attorney who can make his case—assault, yes, but not attempted murder. He gets Mary Jane Hanrahan (Bridget McCarthy), an attorney Angel offends by calling her a bitch, but who takes the case because she sees a certain sense in Angel’s plea and prides herself on turning juries her way. Of course, as the day in court nears, Angel must be coached in how to deny everything.

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Jenkins, by contrast, doesn’t deny anything in his sordid past, and his challenge to Angel is to own his actions, even if, as in Jenkins’ case, they are cold-blooded killings that “didn’t feel wrong.” Long before we hear Jenkins share horrible details of his crimes, we have already gotten to know him—we might think—as a personable older inmate trying to look out for a younger one. Initially, we see him using his considerable charm to elicit favors from D’Amico (Rob Giardian), a white guard under Jenkins’ sway. When D’Amico is replaced by Valdez (Jason Hall), a surly guard who seems to relish sounding like a movie hard-ass, the change makes more emphatic the “us against them” outlook of Jenkins’ pitch to Angel.

Riggins, who played a topdog-turned-underdog in last season’s Topdog/Underdog at CCT, has a knack for playing canny street dudes who earn our trust with a steady patter of amusing observations and insights. He creates a memorable Jenkins, a character who makes us confront how easily good and evil can be at home in the same person. It’s easy to—as D’Amico—says “like him,” and yet Riggins makes it hard for us to trust Jenkins. His “act” is so studied as to seem perfectly natural and that gives us pause. In a very different register, Delossantos’ Angel is as well-realized. He’s not as garrulous or personable as Jenkins because he hasn’t learned to mask his vexations so smoothly. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and provides the main focus for our sympathy.

A harder read is McCarthy’s Hanrahan. She’s forthright to the audience in several brief monologues that often serve simply as plot devices, doing little to evince her character, but setting up the tension of the story outside the jail: what will be the result of Angel’s day in court? Hanrahan emerges as someone whose motives get in the way of her ends, but the legal situation, in the play, serves only as a way of contrasting the law with the truth. Thus, much of the time spent on the case seems less than necessary.

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

As the sympathetic jailer D’Amico, Giardian scores with a monologue about attending an execution that just manages to shift from being all about the speaker to show us something of Jenkins’ fascination. As the sadistic jailer, Hall at least makes us feel that Valdez is playing a role to avoid falling under Jenkins’ spell, a role forced on him by the situation.

With David Sepulveda’s realistic set design and effective lighting design by Jamie Burnett, sound design by Tommy Rosati, and costumes by Carol Koumbaros, CCT’s Jesus Hopped the A Train has a fascinating power, its tension sustained by characters who draw us in and keep us there. Giurgis specializes in showing us people who are in love with the sound of their own voices, and in Jenkins he gives us an especially spell-binding hero—a possibly regenerate villain who, with death looming, has no time for the lies we tell for the sake of ego or to spare feelings. Lucius and Angel are well-worth the time spent with them on the inside.

Jesus Hopped the A Train plays for four more performances, Thursday, November 8-Sunday, November 11.

  

Jesus Hopped the A Train
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Production Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emiley Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Producer: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Jhulenty Delossantos, Rob Giardian, Jason Hall, Bridget McCarthy, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
October 25-November 11, 2018

The Deuce of Spades

Review of Topdog/Underdog, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln, one Booth—their father’s “idea of a joke”—live a precarious existence in the urban underclass. Lincoln—or Link—was once “the be-all and end-all” in the street hustle known as “three-card Monte,” now he has a regular “job with benefits” working in an arcade. His assignment? Dress up like Abraham Lincoln—including white face—and let customers shoot at him with blanks. Meanwhile, younger brother Booth—or, as he wants to be known now, “Three Card”—aspires to his brother’s former status as a hustling legend. Then there’s Grace, the woman whom he claims can’t get enough of him and is hot to be his wife. That would put an end to the brothers sharing Booth’s apartment, an uneasy arrangement that is the setting for Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, now playing at Collective Consciousness Theatre, directed by Dexter J. Singleton.

The room in which all the action takes place, with its paneling, cracked plaster, single bed and armchair, has the vibe of a place just barely suitable. The bathroom is down the hall and, when we meet the two brothers, they have no phone service. They’re scraping by, barely, and the main tension is that Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) once made real money on the street with the cards; Booth (Tenisi Davis) sees that skill as his ticket to better times. Otherwise, he seems to make his way by “boosting” stuff from department stores. The two pride themselves on their fast hands, but Lincoln insists he’s “off the cards.” The killing of a former accomplice makes him leery of that way of life. He resists his brother’s urges to teach him the secrets of successful three-card manipulation.

Parks’ play—in two Acts with an intermission—takes its time getting to what seems a foregone conclusion, once we see that Booth is packing “heat” (a gun he brandishes early in the play). In keeping with the old Chekhovian dictum that a gun shown on stage in Act One must go off in the final Act, Parks leads us there through revealing dialogue and the kind of loose banter that antagonistic brothers can easily get into and out of. The drama is in watching how these hustlers keep trying to hustle a little more dignity and respect from life.

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

In the early going, Booth seems a comical figure, with his brags about his girlfriend and his generally jive nature. Davis plays him as a mercurial type, moody and changeable. He’s often irked at being the “little brother” and feels a bit put upon by his hospitality to Lincoln. He wants something from his older brother and the question is: will he get it? As the play rolls along, with Booth’s hopes and plans, and, particularly, his memories of their mother, becoming clearer, Booth gains in stature if only through pathos. He never seems quite as bad as maybe he really is, or wants to be.

As Lincoln, Terrence Riggins is a great asset of this production and a major reason not to miss it. Lincoln is a plum role and Riggins inhabits him with a graciousness that makes the man easy to like. He drinks a lot and often has his guard down. What’s more, other than a place to stay and some vicarious thrills through his bro’s success with “amazing Grace,” Lincoln isn’t after anything. He has reached a place of stasis, contented so long as he can keep his easy job at the arcade. Much of the play’s forward movement is watching what finally stirs this reticent character from the lair where his former king of the streets persona has gone to hide.

Riggins lets us watch it and it’s a fascinating arc. Lincoln suffers his younger brother’s jibes with patience, and is often reflective. There are many amusing exchanges between them—such as Booth trying to coach Lincoln to make his death as Honest Abe more dramatic, or Lincoln calling Booth on his BS about sex with Grace and his reliance on stacks of porn—and, now and then, a window on their abandonment by, first, their mother and then their father.

Parks’ dialogue is richly imagined and a verbal delight, giving us lots of insights into character simply in a turn of phrase. With its intimacy and excellent acting, the show’s main defect at Creative Consciousness is in its pacing. Because of the many three-card monte routines in the play, timing can stretch out a bit, and there’s a pause, with music, that adds length to Act One. It matters because there’s a lot going on in Act Two and we want to be sharp when we get to it.

The street is never far away in perilous times. CCT’s Topdog/Underdog, at Erector Square, effectively conveys how that context creeps into lives like these. The many costume changes—Carol Koumbaros, costumes—bring in more than visual interest as well. We see how much image matters in establishing a con, not least the con we call theater.

Topdog/Underdog looks at what those title terms mean—in family terms, social terms, and in terms of history, race, and economic standing. We understand that, in any kind of antagonistic struggle, “top” and “under” can switch quickly. In a sense, these brothers are always wrestling, sometimes it’s in play and sometimes it’s in earnest. Dexter J. Singleton’s cast and production keeps a firm grasp on which is which, letting us see the now up, now down progress of a contemporary inseparable duo, charged like Cain and Abel—or Lincoln and Booth—with a harsh fate.

 

Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Stage Manager: Brionna Ingraham; Assistant Stage Manager: Eddie Chase; Set Designer: David Sepulveda; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Costume Designer: Carol Koumbaros; Production Manager: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Tenisi Davis, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
Erector Square, Building 6
319 Peck Street
November 2-19, 2017