nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 13, 2008
What I really admire in Harrison David Rivers's new play Fell is its depiction of a loving, if somewhat insular, upwardly mobile African American family. Even though Jesse, the dad, is absent more than he wants to be due to long hours at the office, and Angela, the mom, is transparently striving and opportunistic in her dealings with—well—just about everyone, these two people clearly and authentically love each other and their two children. Functional (as opposed to rampantly dysfunctional) family relationships are hard to come by in American drama, and I was charmed by the one Rivers offers us.
There is, for example, a simply magical scene near the beginning of the play, in which the two kids—Web, a perpetually awkward teenager, and Zora, about 10, with what her mother describes as a big personality—are playing jump rope. The phone rings, and Angela strides over to answer it. The kids instantly turn the jump rope into a make-believe phone cord with a receiver on either end, each playing their Mom as gracious lady on the phone. Funny and heartwarming because it's so completely real, this is the kind of writing that showcases Rivers at his best and makes Fell's portrayal of this family-in-trouble so affecting.
Unfortunately, the main turns of events in Fell aren't this trivial and natural. The principal conflict has to do with Jesse's treatment at work, at the hands of his boss, a white man named Bill. The press materials and some of the dialogue deal in a general way with a glass ceiling resulting from racism; but the scenes between the two men are of a more sexual nature (Bill asks Jesse to show him how large his penis is). The problem here is that though the demeaning treatment of Jesse is clearly illustrated, the nature of it feels inappropriate in a way that only partially has to do with racism—Jesse seems to be more a victim of sexual harassment than bigotry, and that detracts from Rivers's theme.
A slave woman, identified as a ghost, figures in several scenes as well, reminding Jesse and his children to remember and honor their African roots. But a lack of pride in his heritage doesn't seem to be Jesse's problem, either (or even Angela's, for that matter: it's not that they want to be white so much as that she wants to be rich; Oprah is her role model).
So though race and other issues get serious airing here, the drama doesn't finally hang together or make cogent points the way we'd wish. But Rivers's writing and characterizations are rich and rewarding, and make me eager to see more work by this fairly new playwright.
The production, directed expertly by Jess McLeod, boasts a company of likable actors—Laurence Stepney as Jesse, Melissa Joyner as Angela, Kendale Winbush as Web, Jehan O. Young as the ghost, and Jack Perry as Bill (okay, he's not really likable in this role, but he is effective). The show is stolen by Rory Lipede as Zora, though; she's described in dialogue as a firecracker, and that's exactly what Lipede gives us in the role: a sweet, smart, completely charming and completely guileless little girl who is a handful-and-a-half. Lipede is a major find; her performance here is certainly one of the highlights of this FringeNYC.