New Plays by the New Generation of
African-American Playwrights

by Danai Gurira
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Playwrights Horizons

by Danai Gurira
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Starring Lupita Nyong'o
Golden Theatre
Official Website

by Ike Holter
Directed by Kip Fagin
Primary Stages

by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tina Landau
Starring Phylicia Rashad
Public Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

Danai Gurira is having a good season. And seeing two of her plays, almost back to back, reveals a writer who is (at least for the moment), set upon exploring cultural themes from a cross-sectional view.

            In Familiar, her comedy about a high middle-income African-American family (which just closed at Playwrights Horizons), she looks at assimilation vs. heritage; as the members gather for a pending wedding, the conflicts are caused by how much or how little each has embraced their corner of mainstream America—not just culturally and financially, but interpersonally; the matriarch has a different regard for the bride, her older daughter, a rising attorney, than she does for her younger daughter, an aspiring singer-songwriter making ends meet as a feng shui consultant. Mom’s more even-handed younger sister tries to be a buffer. But complicating matters is that Mom’s older sister has been flown in from The Old Country, Zimbabwe (surprise), and is intent on imposing her cultural standards. And oh yes, the lawyer-bride is a born-again Christian marrying a white colleague of similar faith. As if that’s not enough of an admixture toward a kaboom, in comes the groom’s laid-back, rocker brother, offering his own sage advice (which is, ironically, genuinely sage, but in “hey dude” patois). As to Dad…well, he’s a slower boil, with one secret of several that will come out in Act Two.

            This is a touching and genuinely funny play, with some gratifyingly intricate plotting (as family plays go), in which many seemingly disparate lines head toward center and pay off beautifully.

            Eclipsed, newly transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, is a far more serious affair. Not humorless, but the humor is borne of the need to release. Taking place in 2003 Liberia, it’s set in a bullet-ridden shack, which is the home shelter of three “wives”—kidnapped women now serving as sex slaves—to an offstage, unseen rebel leader. The underlying irony is of course that the leader and his cohorts, for whom sex slaves are counted an entitlement, don’t recognize their own atrocities, even as they seek to depose the monstrous Charles Taylor regime. As to these women: they have variously made accommodations to a life over which they have no control—when met, they are even trying to shield and protect a teenage girl from being discovered and indoctrinated by rape. But their efforts aren’t effective for long.

            Things do threaten to change, though, when a soldier from a force of female guerilla fighters, enters the compound, and spurs the teenager on to see life from the perspective of those who will no longer tolerate abuse and oppression. Of course, their tactics are violent too.

            I’m afraid my reaction to this one was idiosyncratic, and I wouldn’t count it against your deciding whether ort not to attend. I have a very fast ear, but for much of the first half of the first act, I found the Liberian-accented English hard to get accustomed to (my companion of the evening did not; nor did audience reaction flag this as a general problem); and the end of the play (which I won’t describe), meant I think to be shattering, or at least provocative, struck me as an unsurprising inevitability; not because Ms. Gurira fell short as a writer, but because once her player, plot and issues are in motion, there’s really no other place for her to have landed and still maintain the integrity of her thesis. Perhaps not the worst flaw (if flaw it be) that a play can have.

            There’s a sense in which I think Ms. Gurira is fulfilling the legacy—or at least extending the impact as a literary descendant—of Lorraine Hansberry, who likewise, conspicuously examined cultural cross-sections. But where Ms. Hansberry achieved a classic balance with A Raisin in the Sun, because its milieu (and her background) perforce defined the boundaries of her canvas, she was unable to rein in or properly define the scope of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (her second and last play), which, though worthwhile on many levels, examined so many disenfranchised (and group-representative) personalities at once, that you couldn’t lose the sense of an author at work, nor of a too-unlikely confluence of too many forces zeroing in on one increasingly less neutral central character’s universe.

            But there seems, in Ms. Gurira’s work, an assiduous sense of balance and proportion, along with a remarkable even-handedness for all the onstage characters’ points of view. Indeed, I’ve been feeling for the last two or three seasons that, while playwrights of black America have a distinguished history, there’s a groundswell in progress, wherein their being more widely produced feels not just due to the ever-expanding expanding definition of common cultural ground, but to a new generation that is emerging in force; characterized not merely by number, but by grasp of craft. And Ms. Gurira is at the forefront of it.


            And not far behind is Ike Holter, whose Exit Strategy at Primary Stages is a funny-sad (but mostly funny) and involving look at what may well be the last year of an inner city high school, whose staff and students are suddenly emboldened to stave off destruction. Unusual, unpredictable characters, solid plotting—and a little touch of dream state visitation—make for a rousingly heartfelt evening. A terrific cast, under the direction of Kip Fagin, make this easily one of the season’s big winners. I’m talking aesthetics, not awards, of course, but let’s not rule out the latter, either.

As for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes, at the Public…I’m of mixed minds about it. As I usually do, I tried to experience it “cold.”

            Here’s the boilerplate, quoted a little selectively:

            “It's the distant present in a marshy area of Louisiana, and the tides are rising. In a decaying bed and Breakfast, Shelah's family gather to throw her a surprise birthday party, but their celebration is short-lived. Amongst the cramped, fevered confines of the house, an atmosphere of deep unease sets in, with the deeply religious Shelah convinced that some kind of heaven-sent suffering is on the way. And the tides rise ever higher…Transplanting the Book of Job to modern day Louisiana, this New York premiere play stirs domestic drama, religious allegory and poetry…”

            Not knowing the Job part of the equation going in, you don’t quite anticipate the disasters to come. Oh, you know things are bad at the boarding house, but it isn’t a shack. It’s a very well appointed place that needs a few crucial repairs, but that only serves as backdrop for a family play that’s as much (and perhaps a little more) comedy than drama. You certainly don’t have any preparation for Act Two; not the disasters that come slamming into Shelah’s life—which is no doubt intentional on the part of the playwright; he wants us too, to experience that with a sense of cruel, arbitrary fate; a choice which both has its intended effect and disorients—nor, and this is more important, what seems like the final two-thirds of the act thrown into a stylistic shift, suddenly become a long, epic, operatic, rambling monologue for Shelah; one in which she addresses God; and doesn’t actually say much we don’t already know or intuit.

            It’s all very well acted (in particular by Phylicia Rashad as Shelah) and directed (by Tina Landau) and even written, if you put aside the monologue and just savor the character work, dialogue and beat-for-beat interaction. Nothing about this play is dull or by the numbers…but the experiment doesn’t quite work.

            Which is not to say it wasn’t eminently worth trying.

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