Summer in Sanctuary
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
March 8, 2012
At its best, theatre takes you out of yourself. At its best, theatre takes you to a different place. At its best, theatre leaves you ennobled, enriched, enlightened.
Summer in Sanctuary is theatre at its best.
The summer of the title is 2006. The Sanctuary is a community center in a poor black neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. And the playwright before us, performance poet Al Letson, was there to teach creative writing to day camp kids.
“We are not the same.”
This statement, made early on, applies to the thirty-something Letson—who grew up the son of a pastor in what he remembers as a Cosby Show childhood “when things made more sense than they do now,” a dyslexic who fell in love with words—as he confronts these hard, sad, tough, embattled, embittered, bewildered and bewildering children of poverty, crime, drugs, and marginalization.
Letson explains “I have to win.” Win their hearts and minds, teach them, reach them.
But as the ninety-minute odyssey he takes us on vividly shows, it isn’t as easy as Hilary Swank or Sidney Poitier make it out to be. Letson achingly confesses that he soon became “so tired of trying to help people who didn’t want to be helped.”
And does he try. Letson shows us how he used every tool, every trick, every angle to get to these kids: writing, talking, lecturing, admonishing, wheedling. And when those failed: basketball. Music. Video. A handshake. And a wild road trip. And love. And love. And love.
And he shows us those kids, effortlessly becoming the naïf Biko, the inscrutable Devon, the ultimate mean girl Danita. We watch transfixed as Letson takes us through innumerable shifts in time and personality.
And as we watch, we find out how we are all the same. How acceptance and tolerance and compassion and understanding and love can and do break down barriers.
Letson is a spellbinding storyteller, and when he segues into poetry, he is even better (see more of his work at http://www.alletson.com/). His basketball poem literally soars, with its hip-hop rhythms and transcendent imagery. There are wondrous places this piece goes, in wondrous ways. Letson freezes and stops time to flash back to illustrative points in his past, then picks the action back up in the “present” in a manner that is nothing short of incredible.
And, as always, New Jersey Rep shines too, with Jessica Parks, Jill Nagle, and Patricia E. Doherty turning in solid and supportive scenic, lighting, and costume design work, respectively. Director Rob Urbinati keeps the show flowing seamlessly, steadily focusing on Letson and his magic.
Magic and wonder aside, Letson doesn’t believe he succeeded with these kids. And whether that’s true or not, the problems—and they are very big problems, of poverty, of racism, of access, of inequality—still exist. There in Sanctuary, as well as here, and throughout the United States. The gaping hole in these children is not easily filled.
But one way to start filling that hole is to bring them to this piece, and to the message of hope and healing that Al Letson so sincerely offers up.