by Macey Levin
Berkshire Playwrights Lab (BPL), based in Great Barrington, MA was founded ten years ago by theatre professionals Joe Cacaci, Jim Frangione, and Matthew Penn with the intent to nurture playwrights and their new works by presenting staged readings several times each summer. Originally based at the Mahaiwe Theatre, they are now in residence at the new performing arts center St. James Place. They have presented over 40 readings including James Anthony Tyler’s Some Old Black Man which is now receiving BPL’s first fully staged production. It is an auspicious beginning after a rocky rehearsal period.
Just before rehearsals began Tony Award winner (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) Roger Robinson had to drop out because of his role in the TV series How to Commit a Murder was to start filming. He was replaced by Adolphus Ward who suffered severe heart issues three weeks ago and is still convalescing. Fortunately, Robinson’s schedule was changed and he was available to resume the role of Donald. It was announced at the opening performance that as a safety factor he may occasionally refer to a script. Though he did, it was not a disturbing element in this taut and insightful production.
NYU professor Calvin Jones (Leon Addison Brown) has brought his 82-year-old father Donald (Robinson) from Greenwald, Mississippi, to his penthouse apartment in Harlem. What starts as a minor tiff over an old afghan the elderly man wants to drape over Calvin’s contemporary stylish sofa evolves into a battle of wills covering breakfast, photos on the piano and life-altering decisions. Father and son are very very different people with difficult personalities. Donald is cantankerous and prone to mercurial emotional changes while his son is precise, orderly and restrained. They never learned how to communicate. Each accuses the other of years of not listening and not being appreciated or respected. Not until Donald enters painful ground does Calvin reveal the hurt he has suffered at his father’s hands.
This comes out in the context of cross accusations reflecting old disagreements. When Calvin was a skinny six year old he was challenged by a strapping kid three years older. He ran away for which his father has often criticized him. Donald has taken it as a personal affront that his son didn’t follow in his footsteps and stayed in Mississippi doing manual labor as opposed to striving for a different, better, life. The greatest conflict arose when Calvin married Theresa, a white woman now deceased, with whom he had a son. Donald, a victim of Jim Crow and the unwritten prejudice of Mississippi’s social culture, felt betrayed and insulted by the marriage and has never forgiven his son.
Though the play is about African-American culture, the same story could have been written about Indian or Jewish or Catholic families. The universality of the problems and conflicts inherent in familial relations personalizes the play. Given the fact that we are all involved in familial structures of one kind or another and that we are simply human beings is enough to involve ourselves in both conflict and devotion. Ethnicity has nothing to do with experiencing human reactions. This seems to be playwright Tyler’s firm statement.
Some Old Black Man is beautifully written; however, the first fifteen minutes or so are jammed with expository material. As the characters reveal the causes of their anguish we are drawn into the drama of their lives. The occasional unwilling tolerance of each other adds contrast and texture to the profound pain they feel. The contrasting speech patterns and vocabulary Tyler utilizes further displays the difference between the two men’s life experiences and place on the societal ladder.
The acting is both subtle and dynamic. Brown’s early self-control in face of his father’s contentious attitude belies the wrath he is repressing; even when it comes to the fore it is still measured but obviously issued from deep pain. Early on he tries to be gracious while withholding his testiness at Donald’s slights and criticisms. The old man is a character shaped by the indignities of his early years. Robinson makes him unsympathetic and charming at the same time he is berating Calvin or defending his combative remarks. He has a number of hilarious lines that ease the tension for the audience. Though he referred to the script the performance is convincing and solid.
Director Joe Cacaci keeps the pace of the show moving with little wasted time as his actors have created a relationship that is familiar in its verisimilitude. Carl Sprague’s multi-layered but simple set is realistic and suggests a fashionable upper middle class residence. Matthew Adelson’s lights enhance the emotional evolution of the relationship. The effectiveness of this production is that the audience was rapt as they watched this touching portrayal of two men in the throes of a love/hate existence.
Berkshire Playwrights Lab presents Some Old Black Man by James Anthony Tyler, Directed by Joe Cacaci. Cast: Leon Addison Brown (Calvin) Roger Robinson (Donald); Scene design: Carl Sprague; Costume design: Stella Giulietta Schwartz; Lighting design: Matthew Adelson; Stage Manager: Norman Anthony Small; Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission; Saint James Place, 352 Main St., Great Barrington, MA; From 8/12/17 closing 8/27/17
Opening: August 12, 8:00pm, Performance and Reception ($55). August 13-27 ($30-35) – Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Click HERE to buy tickets, or call (413) 528-2544.