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Theatre in Review: Lockdown (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)/BLKS (MCC Theater)

Top: Keith Randolph-Smith, Zenzi Williams. Photo: Sandra Coudert. Bottom: Chris Myers, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Deen Van Meer.

Two new plays deal with the complexities of being black in America in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Each of them treads a slightly uncertain path between character comedy and starker political realities, although neither is without interest. Lockdown puts Ernie, a youngish writer and prison volunteer, into an odd-couple friendship with Wise, a prisoner who, in his early sixties, has achieved a kind of éminence gris status in his place of confinement. Indeed, he gives presentations to the younger inmates, urging them to turn away from the glamorization of gangsta culture and to start thinking for themselves and putting themselves first. "That's why you can't name me five billionaires, and that's why you don't know the people who are actually running the world that you live in," he admonishes them. "You've got to change your mindset to change your life."

Wise is played by the great Keith Randolph Smith, everyone's go-to actor for a certain kind of amusingly garrulous older guy; he does the part full justice, creating a sharply intelligent, often surprisingly gentle character whose life has been defined by the incident that landed him in jail so many years ago. (When he details the length of his sentence so far, a shocked silence falls over the audience.) He has earned a degree in prison, is an avid watcher of the geese who pass by the facility, and has dedicated his life to helping others. At the same time, he has been turned down, repeatedly, for parole, because he cannot fully express remorse for his youthful crime -- or, at least, cannot seem to show remorse in a way that satisfies the board that sits in judgment of him.

Randolph knits together these contradictions into a fully coherent character, revealing, in scene after scene, his uniquely strange prison-bound slant on life. "Are you telling me you ain't got no incarcerated family members?" he asks Ernie, incredulously. He casts a chill when pitilessly remembering how, at age eight, he witnessed a killing in his neighborhood. "I kept licking my ice cream, stepped over him and went home," he says. "Hood rules say boys ain't supposed to cry." He makes thoroughly believable Wise's frustration at failing to summon the right words that would secure his freedom. And when he finally gives a full account of what went down on the day that changed his life, the dismay it causes is real and lasting.

As long as Lockdown focuses on Wise and his struggle to create a coherent account of his life -- his lawless childhood and his productive existence behind bars -- the play poses troubling, not-easily-answered questions about the conflicting roles of individual responsibility and a disturbed social order in the making of a criminal. A subplot in which Clue, another, much younger inmate, is torn apart because his younger brother -- aged twelve -- is arrested for murder, provides an especially acute glimpse into the school-to-prison pipeline, which can cause profound despair in the young black men who make up its fodder. The playwright, Cori Thomas, loses focus from time to time, however: If Lockdown is at its most engaging when Ernie is working with Wise, helping to put together a plausible argument for his freedom, it fades a bit when it turns to Ernie, a former actress who has published a successful nonfiction book but now struggles with writer's block following the death of her husband. At times, the play seems to make a false equivalency, suggesting that the problems of Wise and Ernie are equally challenging, a notion that is borderline insulting to Wise. (Ernie, who is also black, is a markedly underwritten role, but the clear suggestion is that she has lived a fairly privileged life.) While her pain is poignantly drawn, at least she has freedom of movement and an income.

Even so, Lockdown is filled with moments that vividly render the cruelty of our justice system and, under Kent Gash's acute, well-paced direction, all four members of the cast make a solid impression. Smith, a gifted utility player in countless productions, effortlessly takes center stage here, fearlessly revealing Wise's blind spots as well as his almost heroic virtues. Zenzi Williams uses her solid comic timing and knack for suggesting hidden vulnerabilities to make Ernie into a highly likable interloper in the prison routine. She has some especially lively encounters with Eric Berryman, as an infuriatingly officious prison guard who clings to the most extreme interpretation of the rules, in part for the security they offer. Curt Morlaye powerfully suggests Clue's terror for his brother, for whom he feels responsible, even in separation.

In addition, Jason Sherwood's set design packs a lot of detail into a small space: Basically a representation of a spare meeting room, it contains a sliding panel in the upstage wall that reveals a bit of sky, and also opens up to reveal Wise's intimidatingly small cell, which he must share with another man. (Ernie gets an attack of claustrophobia just walking into it.) Dawn Chiang's lighting, which makes good use of vertical tubes of white light built into the set, creates exactly the right clinical atmosphere. Kara Harmon's costume design tellingly contrasts Ernie's casual-wear ensembles with the outfits that say "prisoner" on the pants, shirts, and jackets. Justin Ellington's sound design provides any number of ambient prison sounds as well as a long phone message left by Ernie's late husband, which serves as a kind of talisman for her. An imperfect work, but one which has plenty to say, Lockdown is an often-touching picture of relationships forged in the most barren circumstances.

In contrast, BLKS, by the very new Aziza Barnes, is a raucous, girls'-night-out comedy that veers between delightful, off-kilter hilarity and rank vulgarity, pausing occasionally to embrace a totally unearned moment of seriousness or two. It features three young female roommates -- they appear to be just out of college -- all of whom have a gift for getting into trouble. Octavia, who is writing a screenplay to be directed by her girlfriend, Ry, kicks off the action with a post-coital panic attack. Having retired to the bathroom for a pee, she is stunned to discover a dark spot on her clitoris. Flying into a panic, she begs Ry to give her an examination. When the latter declines, Octavia snaps, "So, you can eat my pussy out but the time I get a mole on my clit it's like I got fucking cooties?"

If that last sentence gives you pause, fasten your seat belt, for there's nothing but turbulence ahead. After Ry flees, we are introduced to Imani, who is nurturing a club act in which she delivers large sections of material from Eddie Murphy's Raw, presumably offering some kind of feminist commentary on it; she is haunted by a sorrow she doesn't want to discuss, but which will come back to bite her before the play is over. June, who has just landed a gig at Deloitte, is in a fury, having come from her boyfriend's apartment, where she discovered a table covered with two half-eaten Popeye's Chicken meals, plenty of liquor, and a used condom. As we learn, she is something of a doormat for this guy, and, during their many breakups, she dons the cotillion dress from her teen years, which looks, eerily, like a wedding gown. (She looks like Miss Havisham, playing video games in her bedroom.)

Fed up with their lives, Octavia (who has also been fired from her job at The Bean), Imani, and June head out clubbing for the evening, where, among other things, a man on the street will give June a shiner, Octavia will end up in a bathroom with "a serial panty-ripper," and Imani will be chased around town by a new romantic interest, a white woman, named in the script as "That Bitch on the Couch," who lives in terror of saying something racist; she is on hand when Imani tries out her Eddie Murphy routine at Nuyorican Poets Café, where she bombs, horribly. Also, June will be followed home by the earnest, nerdy Justin, who ends up on the couch where Octavia, hoping for one more moment of pleasure before her procedure in the morning, enjoins him in an impromptu gynecological exam followed by oral sex.

It's a busy night, to be sure, and one that you are more likely to find amusing if you don't mind hearing the words "fuck" and "shit' every ten seconds or so. In its best moments, BLKS is marked by a screwball hilarity, best expressed in the lead characters' trash-talking ways. "You and me both are the most fired blacks of 2015," Imani tells Octavia, who acidly responds, "Maybe performing segments of Eddie Murphy's Raw standup from 1986 is the new tech boom waiting to happen." June, recounting her Popeye's-and-condom nightmare, snaps, "I swear y'all, I felt like I was in a bad UPN drama." There's a fairly priceless moment, when That Bitch mistakes Imani's disaster at the Nuyorican Poets as an Andy Kaufman-style deconstruction of Murphy's act.

At a certain point, it becomes pretty obvious that BLKS is a lot of running around with no particular destination in mind, leaving one not overly surprised when the play ends with the characters pretty much where they started. (The script's endless comic harping on a possibly cancerous clitoris is certainly a matter of taste; certainly, at the performance I attended, there plenty of takers.) The sitcom-style antics also mesh poorly with intimations of bigger trouble, including allusions to police brutality and male perfidy; here, they come across as spurious attempts at freighting a giddy comedy with unwarranted meaning. Barnes' strong hand is her fresh, youthful sensibility; we'll have to wait for future works from here to get a wider sense of the world.

Matters are not helped by Robert O'Hara's sometimes shrill, chaotic staging, which allows certain scenes to descend into mass screaming. (The cast's collective rushed delivery and so-so diction also make many lines hard to grasp.) In the cast, Alfie Fuller is the clear standout as Imani, gifted with a sly sense of humor and a wicked taste for teasing -- not to say psychologically torturing -- That Bitch (an earnestly, amusingly neurotic Marié Botha) is the clear standout. Coral Pena struggles a bit with Ry's lengthy speech, laying out her complicated feelings for Octavia. (Generally speaking, in this foul-mouthed, high-energy evening, everyone has trouble expressing non-aggressive emotions.) Paige Gilbert's Octavia and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy's June fall somewhere in the middle, although the latter's deflating way with a line often earns laughs. If Chris Myers' Justin seems like a too-cute collection of nerd tics, this may have more to do with the writing and direction than his performance.

The action unfolds across many locations on Clint Ramos' turntable set; it's a tall order and some -- including the ladies' apartment and a streetscape outside the N and R Line Prince Street stop -- are more fully realized than others. Alex Jainchill's lighting doesn't do as much as it might to suggest the variety of settings. Dede Ayite's costumes, including a red snakeskin miniskirt paired with thigh-high mesh booths for Octavia -- are attention getters. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes street sounds, several hip-hop selections, and amplification for Imani's Raw routine.

The movement of the turntable is telling, as BLKS tends to run in circles, following its characters avidly without entirely making them fully engaging. This one feels like the play that budding writers often turn out, focusing on the trials and tribulations of youth. She's good enough that one wants to know what else she can do. -- David Barbour

(10 May 2019)

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