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Theatre in Review: The Block (Working Theater)

Vyette Ganer, Clinton Lowe, Robert Jimenez. Photo: P. Kevin O'Leary

Working Theater has come up with an intriguing plan, assigning dedicated creative teams to come up with plays about each of New York's five boroughs. First up is Dan Hoyle's The Block, and, in many ways, it is a thing of beauty -- a collection of feisty, mouthy characters who speak a poetic urban argot that, for long stretches, distracts one from the fact that not all that much is happening. The authentic atmosphere and pungent dialogue make this one very easy to like.

We are on a South Bronx street corner, in front of a little store called Ceesay Fashions. (A Google search of the address reveals that Raul Abrego's set design is drawn from life, right down to the store's name.) Moe, the middle-aged proprietor, and Rick, a car service driver in his early twenties, are hanging out, shooting the breeze, when their old friend, Dontrell, appears. Dontrell, who is Rick's old school buddy, has been living in Schenectady with his girlfriend; their steady, largely trouble-free life -- with him working two jobs to support them -- falls apart when he catches her with another man. Back in the city, he is staying with his mother, but life there is unstable and he is desperate to get a job and strike out on his own.

Rick casually mentions the possibility of getting Dontrell set up as a driver, but both young men end up spiraling downward, thanks to poor choices and the perils of living on these mean streets, where even modest hopes end up all too easily strangled. But it's not the rather predictable narrative that makes The Block so enjoyable; it's the highly colorful street lingo that Hoyle appropriates and reinvents in a manner that recalls the vivid -- and largely made-up -- slang used in the plays of Clifford Odets. Asking Dontrell if he still knows how to drive, Rick says, "Upstate you just be dodging cows and shit. Down here, people drive like they still fleeing their countries." Commenting on the coming gentrification of the neighborhood, he says, "I'm telling you, the avocado apocalypse is upon us. Down in Mott Haven they got like two new restaurants making avocado-based food, and oops, sure enough, I saw two white dudes with fluffy beards on bikes." Moe, who is African, offers Dontrell his own personal form of relationship counseling: "Long-term relationships, blended families, that's tough stuff, man. That's why, you know, got my wife in Gambia, got my wife here, two families, no blending, man!"

But as life gets tougher for everybody -- Rick's girlfriend gets pregnant and he is forced to make hard choices, and Dontrell struggles with arrests and homelessness -- the talk becomes tougher and more penetrating. Laying out the existential dilemma of a young black man, Dontrell says, "When you a little black or brown kid, you look cute, people wanna help you. But by the time you get to fourteen, fifteen, you not cute no more. Once you not cute, you scary." Probing more deeply, he adds, "Self-love. Something so simple, so basic. But it's not always there." Fed up with Moe's disapproval -- and his relative success -- he invokes the original sin of slavery: "You came here. We was brought here."

Under Tamilla Woodard's direction, the conversation is always lively, often profane, and sometimes scathing. Clinton Lowe captures Dontrell's slow-burning frustration with a world that can't be bothered to give him a break; he is especially good when recounting the moment he lost his temper in front of the cops, with disastrous results. Flaco Navaja clowns around ebulliently as Rick, especially in a long passage describing driving around a football star and his pickup, trying to call up the right mood music on the car radio while the lovers go at it in the back seat. Later, however, humbled by too many reversals, the sadness in his eyes is impossible to miss. Nathan Hinton's Moe is a figure of stature and dignity. Yvette Ganier makes a strong impression as a middle-aged lesbian -- a kind of mother figure to Dontrell -- who is suddenly facing the possibility of life on the streets. Robert Jimenez is thoroughly convincing as a crazy neighborhood character who heckles passers-by and keeps tabs on everyone.

In addition to Abrego's evocative scenic design, Sarita Fellows' costumes and Alan C. Edwards' lighting make solid contributions. Mark Van Hare's sound design is even better; the show opens with Rihanna's "Work" layered over ambient street sounds and another hip-hop tune, a complex of effects that strikes the right tone. Having just closed at Urban Stages, The Block will tour the other four boroughs, playing youth and community centers. Even if it ambles a bit, I feel sure that it will have much to say to audiences around the city. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the plays in this series. -- David Barbour

(13 June 2016)

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