nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 26, 2005
It's an ambitious, audacious idea for a theatre work: A contemporary, serious examination of the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. is interrupted by a 19th century minstrel, of the sort that was once a staple of American popular entertainment, made up in blackface with big painted red-orange lips, white gloves, and wide innocent eyes. This unwelcome visitor takes over the proceedings, and leads the actors and audience toward an honest, authentic account of our history, unfettered by concerns for political correctness.
Such is the goal of Firebrand Theory Theater Company's latest show, Lynch PLAY. They don't quite get there—Michael Scott-Price's script doesn't show us as much of the play the minstrel interrupted in order for the conceit to fully gel, and after a riveting hour about the ante-bellum period, the thing accelerates and ratchets forward to the present somewhat abruptly. But they are to be applauded for treating a serious subject with intelligence and curiosity and for understanding that audiences want to be challenged and will follow theatre artists on a path that's unusual, risky, or even a little bit dangerous as long as they're treated with respect. So bravo to the Firebrands!
And there is much in Lynch PLAY that's well-realized, and a great deal that's of interest. The show is organized as a series of vignettes, most of them based on historical artifacts/documents related to the history of slavery in the United States. There is a sameness to some of the presentation here, but when the creators' imaginations really kick in, the show soars. A slave auction is recreated with chilling potency, for example, with a replica of an early 19th century handbill advertising same prominently displayed on one of the pillars framing the rear of the playing area. "Progressive" statesmen of the revolutionary period such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are revealed to be noxious racists in monologues based on their own writings.
In one of the show's most arresting scenes, the early history of the Ku Klux Klan is narrated by an African American actor dressed up as a klansman in white sheets and pointy wizard hat. In another, much more contemporary sequence, the famous theme song from the TV show The Jeffersons ("We're moving on up to the East Side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky") is appropriated by a group of ex-slaves heading north after the Civil War, to sharply devastating effect.
The overall impact of Lynch PLAY is to remind the audience of historical truths that are often forgotten and to inform us of facts that are usually omitted or swept under the table; as a kind of epilogue, there's a consideration of how blacks and whites see each other in today's America (there's a dialogue, presented as being among the actors themselves, about why, for example, white people aren't supposed to use the "N" word). It makes for a valuable evening, and for often invigorating, adventurous theatre.
Director Jaime Robert Carrillo has his company play gender- and race- blind, so that Rebecca Lovett turns up as Tom Jefferson, while Keith Blaser and Brian Weaver, both white, often play black slaves. Blaser is probably the strongest actor here, but everyone gets a least one moment to shine. Jumaane Ford and B Young are the other ensemble members. Scott-Price himself plays the minstrel Willie D, which is perhaps not the best choice—he comes across as too young and lacking in versatility to embody this ambitious, much-larger-than-life role.
Carrillo keeps the show moving briskly and, despite lots of theatre of cruelty/fourth-wall-destroying elements, he keeps the audience engaged and focused without ever allowing us to feel alienated. The design—sets by Michael Brancato, costumes by Amy J. Pedigo, lighting by Danielle Baisden—is simple, spare, and very effective.