William (James Gale) is a blues singer with few prospects; his only happy memory is of having met Otis Redding decades earlier in America. Unable to fulfill any of his dreams, he takes his frustrations out on his wife, Rose (Nancy Boykin), and their two sons. Rose spends her days drinking unhappily in obvious secrecy and feeling guilty that she is unable to protect her children from their abusive father. Sons Billy (Jamie Harris) and Shane (John Keating) have inherited their father's sense of frustration but, as young teens, they still maintain the optimism of youth: Billy dreams of becoming an actor and Shane a poet.
Outwardly, the brothers are very different: Billy appears to the world to be strident and insubordinate, while Shane -- a self-described "shadow person" -- is far less boisterous than his brother. Yet it is their similarities that interest Orlandersmith. Both Shane and Billy are searching for their place in the world and, as they grow older, it becomes clear that neither is going to find what he is looking for at home. After a particularly nasty fight with his cocaine-addicted father, Billy moves to New York to try and make his way as an actor. Shane eventually joins him, and when the young men are reunited, there is finally a ray of hope in their bleak lives.
The story is a familiar one, and the play's central flaw is that Orlandersmith occasionally indulges in clichés. These formulaic moments are jarring because, most of the time, her writing is so magnificently original. An amazingly precise playwright, her explosive text is full of musical references (jazz, punk, blues, rock) that reveal the characters' attitudes toward themselves and those around them.
Working with a script that is at once realistic and poetic, under Blanka Zizka's meticulous direction, the six-person ensemble is strong throughout. Gale gives an effectively desperate portrayal as the boys' father, James, and Boykin is exceptional as a mother on the periphery of her own family. Best of all though is the talented Keating; even when the play is predictable, his performance is full of surprises. In his hands, Shane emerges as the more interesting of the two siblings. Although sometimes violent and upsetting to watch, Raw Boys is ultimately a sensitive examination of two young men trying make the best with what they have. They make mistakes, some of which are both foolish and tragic, but their faults serve only to make them more human.
Much has been made about Raw Boys being the first play in which Orlandersmith doesn't appear and her first not to address directly the African-American experience, but neither fact seems especially significant when one attends the Wilma's expert production. What's important for audiences is that this is the work of an ambitiously poetic playwright with a profound talent for elucidating the complexities of human beings.