nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 15, 2005
Learning Curve, a new play by Rogelio Martinez, takes place on the campus of an Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. (We're told this much; why Martinez doesn't just take the leap and identify it as Cornell is a puzzlement.) Here, in the present-day, a middle-aged black man named David Jackson has enrolled in an African American studies class; he's befriended by a much younger white student named Jeff who shrewdly decides that Jackson will make an excellent study partner. And here, in 1968-69, an 18-year-old black youth named David Jackson comes to college—the first member of his family to do so—on a scholarship, as part of an early, rudimentary affirmative action program. Young David, who hails from Florida, has never before seen snow, not to mention the other, more immediate wonders that surround him when he arrives on campus. Most noticeable among these is Sally, a pretty, very aggressive white girl who pounces on him at freshman orientation and manages to talk her way into his bed by evening.
While David sleeps, after they've made love, Sally—who is a photography major—snaps a few candid shots, some of which feature her bra covering his face. Their relationship continues, and then comes to a critical juncture when Sally displays some of the photos at a campus exhibition. Sally has let her professor believe that the subject of her provocative pictures is an anonymous homeless black man from the "ghetto"; but David's new friend Henry, a militant black student with whom he works in the school cafeteria, recognizes David in the photo and berates him for allowing the white Sally to "tell his story."
Events escalate until, during the spring semester, Henry, David, and several other black students take over one of the college buildings, threatening violence unless their demands are met. (The only demands we really hear about are for a Black Studies curriculum and more black professors.)
Meanwhile, the present-day story continues to unfold alongside this historical one. The campus takeover that young David participated in turns out to be one of the centerpieces of the African-American studies class that older David is taking. And, as the play slides toward its conclusion, David eventually has a confrontation with one of the key personalities from his past who is still working at the college.
Learning Curve tries to cover lots of interesting and worthy ground, but fails to do so in a really satisfying way. I never really bought into or believed the 1960s plot—Martinez recounts it fantastically, as if it happened a million years ago, without much empathy for what that era was actually like, and without much regard to how his characters might actually have behaved.
The characters whom I found most compelling were the older David Jackson and his young friend Jeff. Their friendship—the most interesting and unusual relationship in the play—is barely explored; and the fascinating question of what it would be like to take a class about a historical event in which you personally participated is similarly hardly touched upon. I would have loved for Martinez to take more advantage of these really promising dramatic opportunities.
The production is fine. Michael Sexton's staging is fluid and sensitive, with Narelle Sissons's slightly abstract setting—an impressionistic rendering of school rooms, dorm rooms, offices, and public areas, amid a sea of classroom chairs—proving most effective. The cast is uneven, ranging from Mike Hodge as the older Jackson, Graeme Malcolm as a bigoted professor, John McAdams as a succession of thoughtless bureaucrats, and Daniel Talbott as Jeff and two other similar students, all of whom do terrific work; to Natalia Payne as Sally, Demond Richardson as young David, and especially Chadwick Boseman as Henry and two other characters, who tend to flounder in their roles. I was bothered by the triple-casting of Boseman: McAdams and Talbott play several roles each that are variations on a theme; but Boseman plays three entirely different characters, apparently because they are all black. Such a choice feels particularly jarring in a play that means to examine vividly the implications of race bigotry.