Monday, December 2, 2019

Blacks and Whites: Slave Play, Hansard, and Michael J. Pollard

James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in Slave Play. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

This review contains spoilers for Slave Play.
Slave Play, written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed for Broadway by Robert O’Hara (who also staged the professional premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop last season), begins with three broadly satirical vignettes about interracial couples copulating on pre-Civil War southern plantations: a white overseer with a black female slave, a black male slave with the white mistress of the house, and a black foreman with an indentured white male servant. The style is familiar, especially to anyone who lived through the downtown theatre of the sixties and seventies; only the gay content of the last sketch and the racial reversal, as well as a few outré details (like the huge black dildo the white woman useson the black buck and the fact that he serenades her with his violin after coition), seem fresh. But then two contemporary characters appear above the stage to halt the proceedings for a Brechtian effect and we wonder if we might be watching a rehearsal. They turn out to be not stage managers, however, but therapists, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), another interracial couple who are running a program called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy – which, they assure their clients, has had tremendous benefits for their own relationship. Each of the pairs we have just seen performing in the sketches is a couple that has enrolled in the group because the black partner has been unable to respond sexually for some time. The idea of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy is that the source of the problem – the reason these African Americans have closed down – is that any sexual connection with a white lover invariably evokes the legacy of slavery and these farcical re-enactments are intended to break through the block. The reason the two therapists stop the exercise is that it turns out to be so startlingly effective with Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) that he has an orgasm and then dissolves in tears, while his partner, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), not only is caught off guard but feels superfluous, even though he knows he’s supposed to be happy for Gary. The subsequent group discussion gives rise to turbulent emotions for all six of the participants.

I didn’t care for most of Slave Play, but Harris, a thirty-year-old playwright who has just received his MFA from Yale – the play was first produced there in 2017 – has made a coherent dramatic argument, and the outrageous hyperbolic nature of its content works for it. After all, Amiri Baraka, then writing as LeRoi Jones, premised his ground-breaking 1964 play Dutchman on the idea that all relations between black and white Americans dance around the truth that their feelings toward each other are homicidal at their root, however polite society may mask them (especially black society). Harris is smart; also, at his best, he’s witty. The two high points in the writing and the acting are both comic. One is a revelation by Phillip (Sullivan Jones), the sodomized musician in the first scene, that the basis for his entire relationship with Alana (Annie McNamara) is his having played – and, he admits, thoroughly enjoyed – the role of a big black stud when he had sex with her in front of the (white) man she used to be married to. (That’s how Phillip and Alana met.) Jones’s playful, laid-back style is in hilarious tension with McNamara’s earnestness as Alana strives to assure Phillip of the depth of her feelings for him, just as she strives earlier in the scene to convince the others in the room that nothing about the anal sex scenario they both enacted reflects their real sex life. (Harris and McNamara both have a lot of fun with the progressive-white trappings of the character.) The other high point is Dustin’s explosion at Gary for insufficiently considering his needs by – among other things – insisting they live in East Harlem, where Dustin feels their African American neighbors are continually looking at him as an intruder with gentrification on his mind and where it takes him, a working actor, forever to get to auditions. Cusati-Moyer is fabulous here, and you can feel his delight at getting to do a number on a self-absorbed actor. Dustin is also furious that no one – including, it turns out, his boyfriend – acknowledges that he isn’t actually white. He never reveals what he is, and even Gary doesn’t know; when he asks him point blank in front of the rest of the group, Dustin protests that he isn’t going to dignity the question with an answer.

The problem with Slave Play is that old devil tone, which tangles up most young playwrights (and not only them). The play is really broad – sometimes headache-inducingly broad – except when it’s not; it’s funny except when it suddenly turns dead serious. Of course, some of the best work in theatre and movies and on TV shifts tones, but nether Harris nor O’Hara seems to be in control of those shifts here. They make the two therapists look ridiculous as well as pretentious, yet isn’t the play telling us that this weird, off-kilter program they’ve either dreamed up or made themselves experts in (I didn’t catch which it was) has plausible historical-emotional origins? Their treatment of these two women doesn’t make sense. I think the playwright and the director want us to walk out of the theatre all shook up; a program note by the poet Morgan Parker titled “A Note on Your Discomfort” begins, “This might hurt.” But though the play ends with an effective second twist, I never felt uncomfortable watching it. So I was puzzled to read afterwards that at a post-show discussion a white audience member labeled the play racist towards white people and Harris responded in an interview by claiming that he just wanted to make the point that whites don’t make room for African Americans. The play I saw isn’t shaped to make any such statement. Its sympathy is naturally with the black characters because they’re the ones suffering from an inability to transcend their slave past.
The production, with scenic design by Clint Ramos and lighting by Jiyoun Chang, is impressive, and most of the actors are good (though Paul Alexander Nolan, as Jim, the white overseer from the opening sequence, doesn’t shine until the last scene). Aside from La Tour and Lucio, whose obvious, over-the-top performances as the therapists are mostly the fault of the writing, the only actor who seemed flat to me was Eboni Flowers, who filled in, at the matinee I attended, for Joaquina Kalukango as Kaneisha, Jim’s wife. It’s mean to single out an understudy and I haven’t seen how Kalukango plays the role, but it seems to me that here too the problem is in the writing: Kaneisha is the only character in the play who doesn’t get a single funny line.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings in Hansard. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

It’s always worthwhile to see Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, but Hansard, the two-hander they’re currently performing at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre – recently transmitted in theatres in the NTLive series – is terrible. It begins as a series of meant-to-be-uproarious, meant-to-be-devastating putdowns by two partners in a clearly disintegrating marriage; he’s a minister under Margaret Thatcher and she’s a liberal whose disgust at what the government is up to has become inseparable from her anger at him. It’s not that the playwright, Simon Woods, has no talent for writing dialogue, and God knows the two actors give his quips the benefit of their skill. But you can’t have a good time with banter if the playing field isn’t level, and we’re not meant to like anything about Jennings’ character. Eventually Woods gets tired of this lopsided verbal tennis game and comes up with a secret about their teenage son that must rank with the worst eleventh-hour revelations in the annals of theatre. This waste of two of England’s most distinguished actors was directed by Simon Godwin, whose work in the London theatre, at least in my experience, has been almost evenly divided between imaginative revivals of classics (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem, Strange Interlude, Twelfth Night) and premieres of bad plays that die right in front of your eyes (Sunset at the Villa Thalia, Occupational Hazards). Hansard is right at the bottom of that second list.

Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde.

Snub-nosed, squinty-eyed Michael J. Pollard, who died November 20 at the age of eighty, was a one-of-a-kind actor, as distinctively quirky for his time as Elisha Cook, Jr. was in the 1940s, and if, like Cook, he’d been lucky enough to start his career in the big-studio era he would likely have been a contract player and had a steady career with lots of visibility. But even if he’d never done anything else, his uncategorizable (and Oscar-nominated) performance as C.W. Moss, the country boy who joins the Barrow gang in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) would have guaranteed him a place in movie history. C.W. is clumsy and not very bright; the movie’s many fans will all recall with special fondness the scene where he gets so excited about finding a parking spot for the getaway car outside a bank Bonnie and Clyde have targeted that hedoesn’t anticipate how much trouble it will be to get it out again. But he’s a reform-school kid with a spirit of defiance that comes out in oddball ways, and his hero worship of the two protagonists is unexpectedly touching. When he proudly takes them home to his widowed dad (Dub Taylor), who plays the expansive host with them but insults them when he’s alone with his son and then roughs him up, you realize that his adoration of Bonnie and Clyde isn’t just about their celebrity and his proximity to it; probably no one in his life has ever treated him as decently.

Most of the stuff Pollard shows up in is obscure, but he gave two other performances worthy of remembering, both small-scale but utterly engaging. One is in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980) as Big Red, who works with Melvin (Paul Le Mat); when he sneaks a nip from a flask while they’re road-tripping and Melvin censures him for breaking the law, Pollard has a wonderful moment when he squints at his friend and tells him with admiring astonishment how good he is. The other is in Roxanne (1987), directed by Fred Schepisi and written by its star, Steve Martin, an updated version of Cyrano de Bergerac that’s so winning I’m amazed it didn’t have a longer shelf life. Pollard plays Andy, one of the small-town firefighters in Martin’s crew, and though he has very few lines, everything he does is a riot and looks choreographed, like the hijinks in a classic silent comedy. He deserves a salute.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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