David Mendizábal

Love American Style

Review of On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre

Maybe love is always dangerous. It risks exposure, it requires commitment—often life-changing—and it alters, sometimes subtly, sometimes outrageously, the status quo. But when the two lovers are men—one white, one black—in 1950s’ Houston, Texas, love comes with heavy threats.

Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, in its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through November 3, directed with a great sense of space and energy and intimacy by David Mendizábal, is a rare achievement in its even-handed treatment of same-sex love and interracial love in a time when both were illegal in the U.S. and, worse, could provoke the kind of vicious hatred that has become highly visible in the twenty-first century. The play registers tellingly the tonality of the Jim Crow era without too much anachronism. It is something of a period play, but fired by the conviction of our own moment. And that makes for a vital evening of theater.

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of  On the Grounds of Belonging  (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of On the Grounds of Belonging (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The opening sets the tone. We meet two regulars of the Red Room, a black gay bar: Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) a bookish type often the object of the lust of Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), a player with a florid manner. As they’re hanging out after a set by Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), the kind of diva forever an inspiration to drag acts, with Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), a wonderfully canny onlooker, on the bar, a white woman comes to the door unexpectedly. Turns out the woman—to whom everyone present is obsequiously deferential at once—is Tom Aston (Jeremiah Clapp) in drag. He was set to perform at the Gold Room, the white gay bar across the street, but wants to hideout until a raid in progress there blows over.

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

In that first scene, Pérez González demonstrates a great feel for repartee among familiars and among the same when someone new—and socially different—arrives. The scene is engaging on several levels and Tom’s efforts to flirt with Russell are free of camp as they ratchet up the heat between them. We’re hooked on this budding romance, one that’s abetted by Hugh, but which must be concealed from Henry who, though he only trifles with Russell, would be affronted by his friend having an interracial affair. As Russell, Calvin Leon Smith displays a thoughtful intensity that makes his character an instant focus. This is his story, as we see his love for Tom lead him into new terrain.

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The dramatic stakes are further inflated by Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), owner of both bars and a character who is truly singular: a racist Southern gay man. The portrayal of this figure is a good indication of the quality of the writing and acting here. Mooney could be a one-dimensional bully or simply a foil, instead he has sympathetic moments and, like Hugh, a knowing sense of the mores of the area. He makes clear that, while gay bars may be tolerated, with occasional raids and beatings, interracial amours will bring on a lynching. And the way he sucks the air out of the room, treating all blacks as lackeys, lets us know where and when we are.

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

A standout scene occurs late in the play when Hugh, dallying with a baseball bat, finally confronts Mooney in terms that make no bones about their enmity. It’s a satisfying rendering of how longstanding grievance can inspire succinct confrontation. As Tanya, Tracey Conyer Scott enjoys a moment of assertion as well, a key scene that shows how the indignities we see her face find their outlet in a command of others. Scott’s singing is a great plus as well, especially in a number that helps cut tension as the play transitions from lighter to darker.

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The main set is a comfortable if simple bar with a leafy walkway above. There Tom and Russell have a touching moment of love set against fears of where their romance is taking them. The overtones of other “star-crossed” loves remain in play though without necessarily tending to tragedy. A scene of violence midway through, around a bed that served as the site of Russell and Tom’s first coupling, nicely juxtaposes the two sides of physical interaction—loving and fighting. The conclusion of that scene sets up a plot device that may cause a feeling of being a bit played, in the end. But then again, it’s not the end. Pérez González has said On the Grounds of Belonging is the first installment of a trilogy. Here’s hoping Long Wharf will bring us the next part when it’s ready.

The 2019-20 season finds new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón putting his mark on Long Wharf, an enduring theater that began in the mid-1960s (not too long after the period of On the Grounds of Belonging) with its eye on (in Board Chair Laura Pappano’s words) a “social-justice-activism-meets-art-to-spur-conversation vibe.” The breath of new life in the theater was evident on opening night, boding well for the transformation Padrón speaks of in the show’s program, with a season “highlighting an inclusive culture in all its complexities.” The season is off to an inspiring start.


On the Grounds of Belonging
By Ricardo Pérez González
Directed by David Mendizábal

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene; Lighting Design: Cha See; Composition & Sound Design: Mauricio Escamilla; Fight & Intimacy Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Production Stage Manager: Bianca A. Hooi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Craig Buckhorn, Jeremiah Clapp, Tracey Conyer Lee, Blake Anthony Morris, Thomas Silcott, Calvin Leon Smith

Long Wharf Theatre
October 9-November 3, 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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