The Hanging of Razor Brown
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
August 3, 2007
The problem with plays or films about our nation's racial history is that, too often, anachronistic statements and attitudes are put into the mouths of characters, and the end result is to simply condemn our predecessors for not acting as a person in our own time would act. In Le Wilhelm's beautifully crafted play The Hanging of Razor Brown, he has wisely presented us with characters from the 1920s who manage to be sympathetic to racial issues while never once seeming like modern characters shoe-horned into the past.
The show takes place atop a hill overlooking the town park, where a family plot is located. The play begins with local drunk Robert Price asleep on a slab. White-suited gentleman Deveraux enters and demands Price get off of his father's tomb. Like most things in this play, your first guess about the relationship between the two is not immediately accurate. Price is a shell-shocked World War I veteran, not just a drunk, and Deveraux and his father both have an unsavory history. Deveraux represents the corrupt old South that is just starting to begin its slow fade-away. Wilhelm has given him a physical manifestation of this: every time he drinks whiskey, there is blood in his urine. The two men chat about the party that will soon be occurring in the park that the hill with the cemetery plot overlooks, and then scatter when they spot the arrival of Genevieve Lecompte, a widow who is in charge of educating three young ladies of the town. The four have taken their day's lesson of reading Phaedra aloud in French on a field trip to the top of the hill. Of the three girls, Cordelia is shy, while Regina and Delilah seem more willing to challenge authority. As the two girls misbehave, Lecompte threatens to take them back inside and not permit them to watch the hanging that is about to happen.
This is the first, subtle indicator of the action on which the play will turn. We will learn later on that the man who is to hang is Razor Brown, a black man who is an employee of Lecompte. His wife Clara appears, to beg Lecompte, a white woman, to intercede on her behalf to get the authorities to hear evidence that Razor may be innocent of his crime. Lecompte, although she concedes Razor is likely innocent, refuses to intercede, saying the authorities simply will not listen. Price, who has an interest in Lecompte, says that he will go along, although the fact that he is a drunk likely means the authorities will not listen to him. While the girls try to not think about the injustice ahead and distract themselves by having a good time with Reggie, a local boy with a crush on Cordelia, Delilah remembers something that forces her to make another choice about whether or not to be involved.
Director Merry Beamer beautifully maintains the balance between the play's moments of comedy and cruelty, and I was engaged throughout. Cynthia Winstead's costumes ground us nicely in the South Florida of 1920. The cast is excellent throughout, particularly Tracy Newirth's multifaceted Lecompte, Jon Oak's theatrical Deveraux, John Mervini's charming Reggie, and Jaclyn Sokol's obstinate Delilah.
One of the fascinating things about Wilhelm's play is the way it uses Southern prejudice and the racial experience to make a metaphor for society as a whole. Each character is trapped in their station, unable to reach out to others. As one of them will eventually say, "You must know what I am doing is simply the way of the world. I happen to hold the upper hand, and therefore, I have the control." Despite this bleak vision, Wilhelm does manage to give us hope for the future with his strong, humane, young characters.