REVIEW: 'Facing Our Truth' at the Paul Robeson Theatre
By ANTHONY CHASE
What a joy, and frankly, what a relief to attend the first show at the Paul Robeson Theatre in the African American Cultural Center in two years. In addition to the disruption imposed by the pandemic, the venerable center, home to Buffalo’s oldest continuously operating theater, had temporarily spiraled into disarray after the death of its longtime leader, beloved Agnes Baine. The transition was messy and included the departure of longtime Robeson artistic director Paulette Harris, and a succession of names, postponements, and even a protest in front of the building on Masten Avenue
Happily, as I walked into the space, there was a sense of renewed energy and commitment. The spirit of the place was lively and cheerful, as I was greeted by the new artistic director, Yao Kahlil Newkirk, who directed a strong evening of short plays exploring issues of racism and activism, under the title, “Facing Our Truth.”
The evening began with “Night Vision,” by Dominque Morisseau, author of “Blood at the Root,” “Skeleton Crew,” and “Pipeline,” directed by Linda Barr. Here a young African American couple have just witnessed an assault. Ayanna, played by Aqueira Oshun, and Ezra, played by Lester “Copestetic” McDade hurry into their apartment, and Ayanna dials 9-1-1. She reports that she has seen a black man in a red sweatshirt attacking a woman. Ezra, however, questions this observation. In the dark, he says it was not possible to discern the race of the man, and he perceived the sweatshirt to be green, not red.
This is a conflict with enormous implications for these two people, who are soon to become the parents of a baby boy. Oshun and McDade create two very real people, and hit every note of Morisseau’s densely nuanced script.
In the second play, “Dressing,” by Mona Mansour and Tala Manassah, a mother, played by Betty Bowen, is concerned about the way her son, played by Jermaine Williams, dresses. She wants him to wear clothes that will help frame positive impressions, that will encourage the world to see her son as the impressive and exceptional young man he is. Her fear is that he will, instead, be perceived as a danger and will end up dead. This turnaround tragically occurs, and after her son goes out the door, never to return, Bowen delivers a searing monologue about how she was naïve to think that Brooks Brothers shirts could be an armor, capable of protecting her son from the racism of this world. Both Bowen and Williams give affecting and engaging performances.
After a brief intermission, the third play of the evening is “Queen Mary’s Roundtable” by Newkirk himself. In the first part of this play, we meet historic civil rights and anti- lynching activist, and Buffalo resident, Mary Talbert, as she receives a phone call from W.E.B. Dubois, in the last year of her life. She died in 1923. Linda Barr plays the role. Dubois talks to her about a surge in lynching, prompting the great lady to question the value of her life’s work. In the second half, a contemporary activist, also played by Barr, comes home from a protest, and she, too, receives a phone call. This time, she is obliged to confront news of the George Floyd murder. This “Tired Black Woman,” also questions the impact of her work against racism and racist violence.
The scene takes on expressionistic elements as Newkirk invades the stage and theater with the specter of “Grim Reapers.” A noose appears in the window, and a dancing Grim Reaper leaps through the space, announcing the deaths of black men. In a moment reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” the ‘Tired Black Woman’ sits down to play chess with a Grim Reaper, endeavoring to complete a chess game that had been started by Mary Talbert.
The floor of the set, designed by Newkirk, is tiled with squares bearing the names and dates of people who were lynched. Some are familiar, some are recent, some are historic. One 19th century victim is, hauntingly nameless.
The plays included in this evening are bold and thought-provoking. Most audience talkbacks include admiration for the actors, and amazement at their ability to remember lines. The level of passion and the depth of thought about the issues expressed at the talkback on this occasion was at an entirely different level.
Linda Barr, a charismatic performer who plays Mary Talbert / Tired Black Woman and who directed “Night Vision,” also provided some of the evenings most interesting and inspiring comments after the show, to an audience that was clearly willing to include thinking in its entertainment repertoire.
The plays cover harrowing and even discouraging territory, but the overall spirit of the evening was one of upbeat optimism. It is easy to forget that optimism, the sincere belief that positive change is possible, is at the heart of activism. All the more reason I am glad that the Paul Robeson Theatre is back!