Reflections of a Heart
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2010
He's not much remembered, but Isaac Woodard, Jr. was one of the catalysts for early civil rights legislation in the United States: after Woodard was beaten by a South Carolina sheriff—so badly that he was left permanently blind—and after the sheriff was acquitted even after he admitted to the beating, President Truman pushed for the end of segregation in the U.S. armed forces. Woodard, an African American man who was, essentially, in the wrong place at the wrong time, was a decorated veteran of the United States Army; the bus trip where his incident with the police took place was the one that was supposed to bring him home from the war to his wife in North Carolina.
This shameful episode in what's still relatively recent American history is one that needs to be told and remembered, and that's what actor/director/playwright Christopher G. Roberts has done in the new play Reflections of a Heart. Woodard's story is told in flashback, narrated by Isaac himself to a Bronx cop who has brought him in under suspicion of stealing 27 dollars from a local neighborhood scoundrel.
The flashback is the most effective portion of the play—Roberts shows us Isaac and two African American buddies being singled out by a racist bus driver and then by a virulently racist waitress for vile treatment...and taking it, which was pretty much the only recourse black men had if they wanted to survive in the Deep South in the 1940s. Smartly, Roberts also shows us people in the room who are clearly appalled by Isaac's treatment, but of course none of them ultimately does anything to prevent the tragedy. It is here that Roberts provides the most damning indictment of passivity, one that applies, in other ways, in 2010.
The scene in the police station, where Isaac is tormented and then brutalized by the sheriff, is harrowing. Again shrewdly, Roberts puts the actual fight offstage, letting us hear it from afar and then see its devastating results.
Reflections is less sure-footed in the sections that precede and follow this climactic section, however. Roberts has added a second narrator to the piece, the ghost of a comrade-in-arms of Woodard by the name of Henderson; he delivers a poetic prologue that is somewhat confusing since we don't know who he is or how he fits into the story until much later in the play. And the depiction of Isaac's conflicted feelings about having the NAACP and others support him in the trial against the sheriff, even if historically accurate, is unsatisfying: the play finally feels inconclusive about what, if any, impact Woodard's case and life had in the grand scheme of things.
I suspect that some of the play's weaknesses can be mitigated with some editing and focusing of the material, and for that Roberts may want to enlist a director or at least a dramaturg to help him gain some objectivity about the work. That said, Roberts's staging is generally fine, if a bit pokey in the transitions between scenes, and his performance in the central role is moving and convincing. The large cast includes several other standout performances: Reginald L. Barnes, who, as Henderson, is particularly effective in a scene at the hospital where his character talks to the immobile Isaac following his attack; Mark Ellmore, who is a cocky, nasty piece of work as the sheriff; Avery Pearson, who makes an indelible impression in a couple of brief scenes as a very damaged WWII veteran in the same hospital as Isaac; and Gillian Glasco, who is memorable as Isaac's mother and a nurse at the army hospital.