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Theatre in Review: A Brooklyn Boy (East Village Playhouse)

Steven Prescod. Photo: Megan Ching.

Brooklyn's mean streets come ferociously to life in A Brooklyn Boy, a solo show that introduces us to a remarkable new talent, Steven Prescod. The story of his young life, it is told in a series of vividly rendered episodes in which he struggles against the temptations of drugs and gang life. Raised by his mother -- his father went to jail when Prescod was one -- he is also surrounded by a grandmother and an array of loving aunts. Male role models are less available. In an early, powerful episode, the seven-year-old Prescod is taken to see his father in jail, an encounter that is acutely poignant but hardly inspirational. His grandfather, who is deeply religious, wounds the boy with his judgmental attitude.

Even with a relatively strong family, growing up in Bed-Stuy in the nineteen nineties and early two thousands is no picnic, and trouble is remarkably easy to find. Early on, he promises his mother that he will never go to jail, a vow that he will come perilously close to breaking when he is convicted of assault and robbery. His most terrible moment comes when the judge demanded that he tell his mother the details of his crime, in front of the entire court. His public defender gets him a choice: five years' probation or seven years in an Upstate jail; he recommends that Prescod take the probation, because he is "too handsome for jail," a remarkably chilling compliment, given the unspoken assumptions underlying it. (This choice sounds very odd -- Who would turn it down? -- and, like many things in A Brooklyn Boy, would benefit from further explication. For example, the in-court confession would have been more powerful if he had repeated what he said that day, instead of skipping over it, and if he had explored what, if any, effect it had on his relationship with his mother.)

Even with this chastening experience behind him, Prescod can't quite stay out of trouble. In the show's two most suspenseful sequences, he skirts disaster. The first involves an encounter with gang members in a bodega; it is an apt illustration of the danger involved in merely walking down the street. The second forces him to face up to his own responsibility: Sitting on his porch, waiting for a friend to come collect the gun he leant Prescod (for reasons that we never learn), he panics when a police car approaches -- the officers may or may not have see him stashing the gun, and he escapes a parole violation by the thinnest of margins.

Throughout, Prescod impresses with his natural stage presence, his ability to transform himself into a gallery of characters, and the authority and precision that inform each choice he makes. From the opening moments, he commands the stage, never losing our attention in the hour that follows. Nevertheless, the text, by Prescod and Moises Roberto Belizario, could use some additional work. Prescod's relationship with his mother would benefit from additional fleshing out. Also, the turning point for him was getting involved in CityKids (a program, run by Belizario, that helps troubled youths find their voices through the performing arts); it would be interesting to learn how acting helped him turn his life around. The show's few brief musical interludes, featuring Prescod singing (not very well) and moving (in a style that might best be called Martha Graham meets hip-hop) could profitably be excised.

Then again, A Brooklyn Boy flies by, coasting on Prescod's natural charisma and solid technique. (The projections, by Brad Peterson and Howard Olah-Reiken, of a variety of Brooklyn street scenes, are especially evocative.) In a curtain speech, Belizario says that he hopes A Brooklyn Boy will be seen by as many young people as possible, to spread its message of hope and change. It should also function as a calling card for Prescod, who clearly is on the road to bigger things. -- David Barbour

(6 March 2018)

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