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Theatre in Review: The Light (MCC Theater)

Mandi Masden, McKinley Belcher III. Photo: Joan Marcus

A pair of longtime lovers gets engaged in The Light, but, instead of champagne, long-buried wounds are opened, with profound, possibly irrevocable consequences. This compact, superbly acted two-hander opens a new front in the ongoing -- and, too often, fractious -- dialogue about race and sex. It also introduces a playwright and director who are very much worth knowing about.

Rashad, a Chicago firefighter, arrives at the chic condo of his lover, Genesis, quietly setting the scene for what he is planning to be a big night (although, as it happens, not at all in the way he has anticipated). Both are black, and she is the principal of a charter school. (His daughter, from a previous relationship, is enrolled there.) They have been together for a couple of years, and she is getting a bit restive. Actually, that's putting it mildly: Rashad has been bluntly informed that he must deliver a ring sometime during the next year -- or else. The playwright, Loy A. Webb, uses the early passages to lay out their dynamic, with her as a natural disciplinarian and him as class clown.

It's all in good fun, however; they obviously enjoy each other, and when the ring is produced, the little victory dance performed by Mandi Masden, as Genesis, earns an authentic shock-of-recognition laugh. For its first third or so, The Light plays as slick romantic comedy; Webb is careful to make clear that this relationship represents a hard-won bit of happiness for both partners. It helps enormously that Masden and McKinley Belcher III, as Rashad, share a palpable chemistry. And Belcher makes Rashad's case for marriage with such sincerity and tenderness, it is easy to believe that paradise is theirs, ripe for the taking.

And yet how quickly it unravels. The sticking point at first appears to be a minor difference of opinion. To celebrate their engagement, Rashad has obtained tickets to a hip-hop concert where their favorite singer is rumored to be making a surprise appearance; however, the evening is headlined by a male star, the mention of whose name causes Genesis to turn ice-cold. The performer has a reputation for social action -- buying textbooks for inner-city kids, for example -- but Genesis can't tolerate the disrespect for women displayed in his songs. This is an old dispute and Rashad has long assumed that she is merely being fastidious, until she discovers that he has the star's full discography on his smartphone. Suddenly the argument assumes a much more serious dimension -- and a moderately beguiling drama takes on a sharper, more intriguing profile: Is she really trying to police his private choices in pop music? Why do they matter to her so much?

The conflict becomes shockingly personal when Genesis reluctantly admits that she knew the singer in college and has personal knowledge of his hypocrisy where women are concerned. I don't want to say anything more, except to add that Webb has planted at least two bombshells in her plot that explode with enough force to put the Rashad-Genesis romance on the edge of extinction. If Belcher dominates the first part, with his deft comic technique and open-hearted wooing style, Masden takes over in the second half, arguing her case with alarming vigor, and, as Genesis bares a long-held secret, commanding the stage with a raw display of emotion that constitutes one of the most powerful performances to be seen this season.

We've had many plays about the awful treatment of young black men at the hands of the police, and the #MeToo movement has increasingly made itself heard on our stages. But Webb has an original, and even more difficult, question to explore here: If a black man commits a crime against a black woman, what matters most -- justice for her or not adding to the socially constructed idea of all black men as predators? If she can't find support from the members of her own race, then what? As Genesis furiously notes, many black women must endure a "unique struggle" that leaves them a minority within a minority -- and it is a lonely, terrible place to be.

The Light is not a polemic. Webb, a canny dramatist, provides both characters with plenty of firepower. Rashad has had his youthful dreams of sports stardom derailed by a false accusation of abuse and he has been particularly ill-treated by his daughter's mother, who is also entirely without maternal feeling. (It's hard to imagine a more upstanding character than Rashad, who has pulled himself out of a personal abyss to become a caring, provident father and son.) She also complicates the issue by setting the action during the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford imbroglio, plausibly giving both characters nuanced, unexpected positions. But, as Genesis reveals more about her past, we come to see her as a woman exhausted by keeping secrets and hollowed out by forever explaining to men the corrosive effects of casual sexism and the deeper crimes it hides. For all their passion, neither partner really understands the other, and whether their relationship can stand this much truth remains an open question.

The director, Logan Vaughn, confidently guides the action from the lighthearted opening through the later explosive revelations to the painful, tentative reach for a new beginning. The sight of Rashad standing next to a closed door in a state of shock, utterly unsure of his next move, eloquently speaks to the havoc that has been wrought, as does the moment when he stands behind Genesis, weighing whether she can bear his touch. Vaughn maintains tight control of the material, keeping the suspense building up to the final line, which leaves open what happens next; one imagines The Light is going to be the cause of many a post-show conversation.

This is the inaugural production in MCC's new 52nd Street digs and it's a pleasure to report that the Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater, the smaller of the complex's two spaces, is an attractive, comfortable playhouse with excellent acoustics. It's a flexible space, and The Light is staged with the audience on three sides of Kimie Nishikawa's chic set, a white-brick interior with black accents, Danish modern furniture, and a view of the trees outside; Ben Stanton's lighting follows a day-into-night sequence that tracks with the chill developing between Rashad and Genesis. Emilio Sosa's costumes underline the strong difference between the characters' ways of life. Elisheba Ittoop's sound design includes several cuts of hip-hop and soul music, a couple of which are essential to the plot.

The Light is a fine way to open MCC's next chapter. In addition to unveiling its new home, the company is fully following its mission, to showcase new talent in Webb and Vaughn. (Belcher is a known commodity, having earned rave reviews and a Drama Desk nomination in 2016 for the boxing drama The Royale.) Masden has done well in a number of Off-Broadway productions, but The Light gives her an unprecedented opportunity; this production stands to bump her career to another level.) The play also forces us to consider yet another aspect of a conflict currently roiling American society. Just about everything associated with it is a burst of fresh air. -- David Barbour

(11 February 2019)

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