Joseph Edward,co-author and star ofManchild in the Promised Land
Joseph Edward,
co-author and star of
Manchild in the Promised Land
Joseph Edward and Wynn Handman have turned Claude Brown's remarkable 1965 autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, into a one-man show for Edward to perform, but that doesn't mean the stage of the American Place Theatre isn't crowded with people jostling for attention. It is. There they are: a gallery of vital characters roaming the Harlem streets on which Brown was raised, populating the correctional institutes to which Brown was sent, and spilling into Greenwich Village where Brown moved at 17, having decided that if he wanted to save his life, he had to quit uptown.

The most prominent of these figures is, of course, Brown himself, a juvenile delinquent by the time he was 13. After he spent time at one correctional facility and was sent to another for his participation in a failed robbery, Brown assumed he was doomed to drugs and early death. But he was spared from going the way of so many of his contemporaries when, assigned to work in the superintendent's house, he was befriended by Mrs. Cohen, the superintendent's wife. Believing that Brown could have a brighter future, Mrs. Cohen prevailed on him to read a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune and, after he'd finished that tome, biographies of Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Albert Einstein, and Albert Schweitzer.

Soon, Brown was hooked on reading and had developed a love for jazz--after having heard his first Charlie Parker records--and the boy became intent on making good. When he returned to Harlem, he itched to get out and finally did, going back only to see his parents and to keep an eye on his younger brother, Pimp. Though Claude wasn't entirely successful with Pimp, who temporarily succumbed to the heroin epidemic that swept the area in the late 1950s, both brothers eventually triumphed over the odds.

In bringing Brown to on-stage life for 90 energetic minutes, Handman and Edward have had to trim the gritty, unflinching, slangy, sprawling source material, but everything they've selected counts. Beginning with the 13-year-old Brown's shooting during that hold-up, they progress through his recovery, incarceration, and the beginnings of his education. They introduce Brown's family--his worried mother and stern father--as well as numerous Harlem buddies like Danny, a strung-out junkie who later recovers his health. Handman and Edward show how Brown takes up jazz piano and observes his chums telling him that he must study with a black teacher to be any good. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a white girl named Judy Strumph who also loves jazz but whose "broad-minded" family remains that way for only so long.

The relationship between Jews and African-Americans is one of the sub-themes of this Manchild. The importance in Brown's life of the Cohens and the Strumphs echoes a kinship between Jews and blacks that was less fraught through the 1960s than is the case today. Resentments and suspicions of mutual exploitation hadn't surfaced in the years Brown is recording, and the Edward-Handman play registers these emotions as part of the healing process.

Edward, a bulky, graceful actor who looks like the photographs of Brown taken at the time, does a top-notch job of slipping in and out of his character's skin. (As Brown matures physically, mentally, and emotionally, Edward slips from a T-shirt and jeans to short-sleeved shirt and khakis, and then to jacket, tie, and pork-pie hat.) He's equally adroit at conveying Brown's rage at those mean Harlem streets and his wonder upon hearing the music of Charlie Parker. Under Handman's always inventive direction, Edward also does deft impersonations of a stern white judge, the hooker who gave Pimp his name, and Pimp and Danny in varying stages of drug addiction. The performance is ultimately most remarkable for its depiction of a young boy growing into a man of equal parts pride and humility--in other words, a gentleman.

Claude Brown's book ends quite beautifully with the following reminiscence: "When I was very young--about five years old, maybe younger--I would always be sitting out on the stoop. I remember Mama telling me and Carole to sit on the stoop and not to move away from in front of the door. Even when it was time to go up and Carole would be pulling me on me to come upstairs and eat, I never wanted to go, because there was so much out there in that street.

"You might see somebody get cut or killed. I could go out in the street for an afternoon, and I would see so much that, when I came in the house, I'd be talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Dad would say, 'Boy, why don't you stop that lyin'? You know you didn't see all that. You know you didn't see anybody do all that.' But I knew I had."

Edward doesn't get around to reciting this evocative look back at the magic of childhood, but, then again, he can't get to everything. What he does get to is one young man's struggle to fulfill the promise of our Promised Land. He's outstanding at it.