The performances were variable, but their messages could not have been timelier … or more necessary.
By Paul Dervis
I arrived in New York City just in time to catch a couple of performances in the East Village. Friday night brought In It Together at the Speak up, Rise Up Festival, a story theatre presentation that focuses on issues of diversity in America and elsewhere around the world. Though their yarn spinning talents were uneven, the performers’ tales of discrimination were deep and profound.
Named after an uncle who was killed in the Iraq/Iran conflicts, Abbas Mousa struggled to survive in a treacherous landscape. Was he in a Shiite or a Sunni friendly environment? One community was vastly different from the next. And, if he found himself in the wrong place, his life was in immediate danger. His first name alone marked him out for trouble. His mother begged that he change his name. She didn’t want to lose yet another loved one to the viciousness of fanaticism. What did the young Abbas want? To become educated and find a comfortable place to live.
Though Mousa’s challenges are hardly news, the details of what he experienced still shocks. The problem with his performance was its delivery, which was halting. Stumbling over his words, the through-line of his tale choppy, Mousa almost left the audience behind. Fortunately, what he had to endure was powerful enough to hold us.
Carl Yard, a New England stand-up comic originally from Barbados, fared much better at putting injustice into words. He effectively recalled an incident from his youth. Yard was sitting late at night in a car with several young African American friends, playing tunes on the radio. Suddenly, a vehicle pulled up next to them. In it, a white man and woman were arguing. Suddenly, the man started to beat her. She screamed as she was being bloodied up. Yard attempted to get out of the car to help her, but his friend behind the wheel locked the doors and sped away. Yard could not understand the callousness of this…that is, until his buddies pointed out what it would look like to the police: several young black men surrounding a car where a white woman had been assaulted.
Welcome to America.
But the evening’s most articulate and striking performance was still to come. Marc L Abbott is the son of a decorated police officer. And African American. One morning, when he was a teenager, he and his pal were on their way to school when they were racially profiled by the police. His buddy was scared, but Marc was confident, because of his dad. Mouthing off a bit to the cops, he pointed out who he was. The officers, after a moment’s pause, backed off. Marc bragged about this confrontation to his father…who saw a cautionary tale and told him not to challenge the police like that again … you never know what will happen. Years later, during a riot in Atlanta, Marc came face to face with his father’s prophecy.
Not only was Abbott’s yarn riveting, but he is a powerful storyteller as well. He had the audience’s wrapt attention. He closed the evening powerfully, placing an exclamation mark on quartet of stories that dramatized what it is like to be a minority in the increasingly intolerant country we live in today. The performances were variable, but their messages could not have been timelier … or more necessary.
The next night I went to a show at The Broadway Bound Theatre Festival at the 14th Street Y, a beautiful space just off of Union Square. Running for My Life is a rookie playwriting effort from long time theater professional Chuck Muckle …and it showed. The script revolved around a man, Jay Chas, whose life — domestic and romantic — is falling apart. Told through multiple scenes, the story came off as disjointed. The dramatic accent is on movement more than dialogue. (Not a bad concept, if the movement had significance. Unfortunately, it rarely did.) The performances ranged over a number of different styles; some actors were over-the-top, others aimed at subtlety. The lead had a tendency to strike poses, thrusting his head up into the lights to be admired. Was he playing an Abercrombie and Fitch model or a character in a play? Tom Bradshaw, as the father, provided a solid effort. The piece could have used more of this character.
Running for My Life has some promise, but it needs to be workshopped and cultivated. At this point, the play was not ready for full production — Broadway bound it was not.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.