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Theatre in Review: soft (MCC Theater)

Leon Addison Brown, Biko Eisen-Martin. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez

Donja R. Love's new play is an explosive drama wrapped in an envelope of transcendence. It begins with a flurry of flower petals falling on us and ends in the mystical union of lovers. Between these episodes, the drama is boiling hot. In his new play, the fourth to be seen in New York, Love reveals his skill at reframing certain recurring questions in new dramatic contexts. There are things in soft that don't always work, but this is one of the most consistently absorbing -- and, at times, dismaying -- new works to open this spring.

In continuing his examination of Black masculinity, Love turns his focus to a correctional boarding school at which students have been placed in lieu of prison sentences; they can go home once a month, although what awaits them there is all too frequently toxic. A half-dozen of them -- all Black, Afro-Latino, or Dominican -- make up Mr. Isaiah's writing class: Antione, a talented visual artist; Dee, who is "sweet" and rather overt about it; Bashir and Jamal, locked in a tense rivalry; Eddie, who is usually drunk and sleeping it off; and Kevin, who is sufficiently gifted to be successfully tutoring the others. Mr. Isaiah teaches writing as a potent tool of self-expression, getting them to examine Othello's predicament as a Black man in a hostile white society -- Kevin produces a mean rap on this subject in less than a minute -- and demanding that they work out their interpersonal conflicts in words. ("If y'all are going to battle, it has to be in sonnet form.") To be sure, the group is volatile, with fights often erupting like summer storms, but clearly Mr. Isaiah is doing vital work.

Then Kevin, who shows so much promise, hangs himself. The atmosphere in the room changes markedly, with arguments getting uglier and Antione shutting down, refusing to speak. Mr. Isaiah, reeling from a tragedy that he might have prevented, tries to keep the class going, even as he begins to doubt his effectiveness. Digging deeper, he discovers two triangular relationships underpinning his students' rage and disaffection -- one rooted in crack addiction and parental sexual abuse and the other involving gay sex and HIV. Love elegantly orchestrates these situations, laying the groundwork before revealing the truth about them in a single speech. Waiting in the wings is another terrible turn of events; these young people are trapped by definitions of manhood that are, effectively, killing them off.

If soft often pulsates with emotion, Love sometimes cuts corners, especially in the rather pro forma scenes between Mr. Isaiah and Mr. Cartwright, the school's by-the-book principal. (He appreciates Mr. Isaiah's innovative methods but is also a former idealist, with the facial scars to prove it, and knows what it is to be eaten alive by hope.) In one conversation, Mr. Isaiah worries about Kevin, saying he may be reaching out for help, a concern dismissed by his clock-watching superior. But Love doesn't show Kevin doing so; indeed, Kevin (well-played by Shakur Tolliver ) disappears from the action before we get to know him, leaving something of a gap in the narrative.

Then there's the ending, which I won't describe except to note that it transports two of the characters to an altogether different plane of existence. Then actors reach out to certain members of the audience, handing out flowers in a gesture of affirmation. One can understand how Love, having worked his characters into a terrible corner, may want to provide them (and us) with an escape hatch, but such a breaking of the fourth wall does seem, well, flowery. It is consistent with many recent Black plays, which end with characters taken to an otherworldly place and/or actors stepping out of character to excoriate and/or uplift (part of) the audience. (You can find one or the other in Fairview, Pass Over, Tambo and Bones, and Confederates, among others. What to Send Up When It Goes Down is one long exercise in audience interaction.) But we're at the point where such gestures, no matter how heartfelt, risk becoming clichés. And what does it mean that, in these playwrights' views, the only recourse for their characters is a fundamental break from reality?

That soft remains alive in one's head days after seeing it is proof of its power, however. Whitney White's taut direction, aided by the stunning fight direction of UnkleDave's Fight House, elicits superb performances while confidently straddling the play's sharply opposed tones. The character of Mr. Isaiah is severely underwritten (particularly regarding his complicated past, involving his brother and a criminal prosecution), but Biko Eisen-Martin gives him plenty of charisma along with a touching vulnerability. Dharon Jones' Antione is a tightly coiled portrait of rage, yet one remains aware of the deep wound at the center of his being. Essence Lotus reveals the careful, observant thinker behind Dee's flippant exterior. Travis Raeburn and Dario Vazquez find many degrees of shadings in, respectively, Bashir and Jamal, characters that could be merely bellicose. Ed Ventura's Eddie lies quietly in wait until he stages the play's most alarming meltdown. The veteran Leon Addison Brown is solid as Mr. Cartwright.

Adding to the power of the play's fight scenes is Adam Rigg's intimate scenic design, which carves out a narrow slice of classroom with institutional windows and a rusty pipe hanging overhead. Cha See's lighting effectively switches colors and color temperatures as the mood demands. Costume designer Qween Jean has provided each of the students with a cleverly customized version of his prison uniform. The sound design by Germán Martínez combines lovely incidental music with a variety of effects.

Love has been at the forefront of a wave of Black queer playwrights whose works have recently had a transformative effect on the theatre. Here, he extends his ideas, linking them to other issues affecting the Black community, while calling up a kind of healing spirituality. Many writers rework similar themes from play to play; when done with his range and versatility, audiences can rejoice. They're in the presence of the real thing. --David Barbour

(16 June 2022)

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