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Race Music

Warren Bodow's well-meaning if flawed play about an African-American deejay experiencing discrimination benefits from strong ensemble performances.

Teresa Stephenson and Brandon Jones
in Race Music
(© Carlo Damocles)
When it comes to hiring often ill-treated minorities, we all know about affirmative action. But should there be affirmative action in regard to flawed playwriting? One may feel that a certain amount of dispensations are called for with Warren Bodow's Race Music, now at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, which is about African-American Lebron Malek (Brandon Jones), who is applying for an announcer's job at a large Midwestern city's classical music station run by the surprisingly and shockingly racist Harvey Kane (Chris Ceraso).

Lebron is not counting on affirmative action to land him the hifalutin deejay slot. Classical music is his first love, and he knows plenty about it and pronounces the names correctly, thanks to the influence of his longtime-single mom and practical nurse Alma (Penelope Lowder). Yet, as the play follows Lebron's determination to get what he wants -- with the help of Kane's obliging assistant Caroline (Teresa Stephenson) -- and as Kane tries to stymie him definitively, Bodow commits several glaring dramaturgical errors.

He piles on the exposition; he counts on a large-scale coincidence that has one of Kane's advertisers connected startlingly to the striving Maleks; and he engineers a far too pat denouement -- all because he passionately wants to convey his conciliatory message that the notion of race and discrimination should be tossed into the nearest garbage pail like yesterday's newspaper. In fact, he's so insistent on making that urgent point that he even has one of his characters, Sam King (Kevin Kelleher) -- the above-mentioned classical-station advertiser and divorced Jew looking to remarry -- float a theory that the real division in American society is not between races but between classes.

Still, Bodow has his heart is in the right place; and all the racial (or class) mending that takes place before his two-act work is done gets audiences on his side. They'll also welcome some of his frequent and realistically gritty speeches, and they will undoubtedly believe Bodow knows what he's talking about where radio-station procedures are concerned.

Equally importantly, audiences will also be persuaded about the play's cogency by Victor Lirio's tough-minded and sensitive direction and by the playing of a polished ensemble. Lebron is a positive guy who could seem annoyingly cocky in less skilled hands than Jones'. Lowder embodies a devoted nurse's healing impulses and a disappointed woman's acquired valor. Stephenson has a strong streak of Sandra Bullock-like pluck. Kelleher is stiff but warms up nicely. Ceraso has the most challenging role, but he commits to it, and the commitment pays off.

Fortunately, so does the play by the time Bodow's music reaches its crescendoing coda.

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