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Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things

The Negro Ensemble Company presents a problematic production of Leslie Lee's worthy if flawed play about the everyday effects of racism.

By New York City
Stephen Tyrone Williams and DeWanda Wise
in Sundown Names and Night-gone Things
(© Carmen L. de Jesus)
Stephen Tyrone Williams and DeWanda Wise
in Sundown Names and Night-gone Things
(© Carmen L. de Jesus)
The respect owed to others and to ourselves is one of the primary themes of Leslie Lee's Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things, now receiving its New York premiere from the Negro Ensemble Company at the Castillo Theatre. But while the work has a worthy message, its effectiveness is undermined by flaws in both the play and director Woodie King Jr.'s production.

Set in 1938 Chicago, the play revolves around Cairo Biggs (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a young African American man from Mississippi working at the South Side Burial Society, selling insurance. His co-workers -- Travis McKinley (Marcus Naylor), Arjay Thorton (Nathan Purdee), and Boyd Henry (Ralph McCain) -- spend most of their time talking about women, and are actively taking advantage of the desperation that some of their female clients feel in order to arrange for sexual favors.

Cairo himself is sexually involved with one of his clients, the beautiful Ruby Meeks (DeWanda Wise). However, the difference is that he actually cares for her, and also feels guilt. For her part, she welcomes his advances, but is not tied to him exclusively -- and gets angry and even spiteful when he expresses jealousy.

As in Lee's The First Breeze of Summer, which was revived last season by the Signature Theatre Company, Sundown Names deals with the everyday effects of racism, and how its internalization can impair judgment. Here, the playwright goes even further to show how sometimes members of a minority population prey upon other members of that same minority. He balances the more overt didacticism within the piece with humor, but certain aspects of the script play out rather predictably and with more than a touch of melodrama.

Williams does a fine job of projecting his character's internal conflicts, and has good chemistry with Wise, who practically radiates sensuality. Purdee manages to make Arjay seem likable even as he expounds upon his rather misogynistic theory about women in a speech that gives the play its title. Arjay's later bout with his conscience is played more for humor, and the actor also succeeds in milking the laughs out of that situation. Naylor and Henry sometimes verge on caricature, although admittedly neither part is written with much depth. Rounding out the cast is Crystal Anne Dickinson, as one of Travis' clients, whose initial coquettishness gives way to righteous anger.

Ultimately, King could afford to quicken the pace of the two-and-a-half hour production, and John Scheffler's cluttered and not very attractive set isn't very conducive to smooth scene transitions.


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