Through the Night
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 23, 2010
At times, Through the Night feels more like a stunning piece of speechwriting than a stunning work of playwriting. As a series of meditations and exhortations on the subject of black American manhood, and especially black American fatherhood—on finding the strength to fight one's demons and emerge stronger—the piece is both stirring and inspirational. As a piece of dramatic storytelling, I found it less convincing—characters a little too pat, plot developments a little too predictable. But it's a moving and satisfying piece of theatre either way, due in large part to Daniel Beaty's sheer presence as both performer and writer.
The play takes place on a single night in the lives of six men, all played by Beaty and all connected to one another in various ways, with the pastor of a local church, Bishop Alfred, at the center of the knot. His son Isaac, a record-company executive, mentors a recent high-school graduate from the projects, Toine, who's headed off to college. The Bishop has also helped Dre, an ex-con and ex-junkie with a pregnant girlfriend, get a job in the local health food store run by another of his parishioners, Mr. Rogers, who's on a quest to bring veganism or at the very least better nutrition into the inner cities and the black community. And Rogers's son, Eric, a young boy with a passion for science, uses herbs from the store on a never-ending quest for an iced tea/potion with magic powers. (Mothers, spouses, and lovers of the main players make cameo appearances, but the heart of the play is the stories of these six men.)
On this night, Dre's child is being born; the Bishop has had a recent health scare and is fighting with his food compulsions; Toine has just graduated from high school and wants to convince his girlfriend to move to Atlanta with him; Rogers is struggling to keep his business alive; and Isaac is facing ultimatums in both his personal and his professional life. Though the characters cross paths at various times on this day, the main focus for each is his internal struggle with the responsibilities of his life—with being a good father and a good son; with being a strong, upstanding man who does the right thing; with the conflict between being a fulfilled human being and a role model; and with how to deal with failure in one or more of the above. Each has achieved triumphs (the Bishop's thriving congregation and long marriage, Isaac's business success, Dre's staying clean and fathering a child, Rogers's starting the business he's always dreamed of, Toine graduating from high school, Eric's continual progress toward his goal), but each is also facing an enormous decision, challenge, or crisis right in this moment. And the movement of the play is to take the characters up to the brink of destruction, into the darkest night of the soul, and help them find the spiritual strength to see that through.
The men's connections and interrelationships are nicely reflected in Alexander Nichols's projection designs, which give each setting a visual backdrop; different settings overlap and interpenetrate in scenes among multiple characters.
The writing varies between monologues that do the bulk of the storytelling and almost slam-poetry-like segments that emerge in moments of strong emotion. The latter seem to be torn straight from the hearts of the characters; they get instant reactions from the audience almost every time, and they're immensely powerful, much more than the more straightforward monologues. I kept getting hung up on small details in the storytelling that felt inconsistent or didn't make sense to me (for example, the Bishop has been married 39 years and is preparing for his 40th anniversary celebration, but his son, Isaac, is 40)—but in the more poetic sections, the rhythms and joy of the language took over.
Beaty's strength as a performer lies in his connection with the audience. At times his character portrayals can be a bit broad or showy; this helps to instantly indicate which character he's steeping into, but it also makes the character work less subtle and intricate than it could be. But, guided by director Charles Randolph-Wright, Beaty has remarkable control of the pacing and the rhythm, of the rises and falls of energy in the room. And his passionate conviction for his material is palpable; that conviction in turn convinces the audience to take the journey with him. The meaning and the message of Through the Night are both important and compelling, even when the theatrical execution falters.