MITF 2015: The Enforcer; Indigo; Pearl
By David Gordon
"Thangs ain't always as they seem" is the one-line synopsis of Glynn Borders' 2009 solo drama The Enforcer, presented at this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival. No, thangs are not always as they seem in this engagingly written and acted half-hour monologue, codirected by performer Borders and Herbert Quinones. In fact, a pretty startling reversal late in the piece turns everything we've previously learned on its head, all for the better.
The Enforcer is an exploration of childhood humiliation, told from the perspective of an older man looking back on his year in fifth grade. He was a good kid, the teacher's favorite. On the opposite end of the spectrum is another young lad, a 13-year-old troublemaker. The story transpires during an era in which corporal punishment was acceptable — and the play's title comes from the instrument of choice used to teach students lessons from the school of hard knocks.
Borders' tale seems almost scarily true-to-life, and his performance is captivating. He dexterously moves from character to character without blinking, drawing vivid portraits of youngsters and adults who could easily be the people sitting next to us at the Davenport Theatre. Borders' writing is just as sharp, shifting from laugh-out-loud comedy to surprisingly dark drama in similarly natural ways, and he brings the piece to a thrilling, unforgettable conclusion. With such fine storytelling, it's hard not to wish that this play were longer.
By Zachary Stewart
In the furtive and somewhat decrepit confines of the black box stage of the Davenport Theatre, you may actually feel like you're witnessing a secret meeting of revolutionaries. Cassandra Powell's Indigo brings us into the inner sanctum of Chicago's Black Panther Party in the early 1970s. It's a fascinating look at American Jacobinism and the way that true belief often violently collides with individual ambition.
Indigo (Tunisia Samaritan North) is an activist working with the Black Panther Party to free their leader Khalid, who is being held on suspicion of murdering a popular white business owner. All the Panthers suspect a set-up. Khalid's lawyer Nasir (Jarryn M. Bingham) thinks he can exonerate his client, but only if witnesses start coming forward. Unfortunately, every time they get a lead, the witness disappears or refuses to speak. Did "the pigs" get to them first? Meanwhile, Indigo wants to be an actress. When the Panthers discover a blond hair left by her white scene partner Blakely (Steve Bauder), however, she also becomes a source of suspicion.
Director Herman Spearman stages Powell's story with Spartan efficiency, leading the cast to uneven performances. Tanya Freeman gives a fiery portrayal of outspoken young law student Vera. By contrast, some members of the cast have an unfortunate tendency to whisper as though they really were being bugged by the FBI, making some of Powell's dialogue inaudible even in this intimate space.
Still, the story brims with potential. Powell has astute things to say about the backbiting nature of revolutionary enterprises and the ambivalence of working within a system one has determined to be inherently discriminatory and oppressive. Under such circumstances, there can be no happy endings and Powell refuses to give us one, resulting in a real (if somewhat unredeemable) tragedy.
By Hayley Levitt
The Midtown International Theatre Festival finds a gem with Pearl, a musical homage to legendary singer, actress, and African-American pioneer Pearl Bailey. Soulfully directed by Ben Harney, the biomusical follows the same basic formula laid down by its popular Broadway predecessors Jersey Boys and Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. The story opens in 1933 when a 15-year-old Pearl enters and wins an amateur talent contest, alongside her brother Bill (played by fast-footed tapper DeWitt Fleming Jr.). Bill, the first member of the family to go out to Hollywood, stumbles into a life of drugs and alcohol, while Pearl climbs to the top of the entertainment industry, unprecedentedly joining the ranks of the day's most popular white performers including Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and Frank Sinatra (all played by the charismatic Sean Gorski).
CB Murray writes a book that effectively portrays Bailey's unorthodox — and often dangerous — position straddling white and black culture in mid-20th-century America (though a few facts about Bailey's life are fudged for streamlining purposes). Despite occasional sermonizing, the piece as a whole maintains its poise as a respectful tribute, never completely falling to its knees in worship of the great Pearl Bailey. Jennie Harney is brilliant both vocally and dramatically as this titan title character, evolving from a naïve young girl into a seasoned, eye-catching performer, hardened by life and love. Bailey was married four times throughout her life, though her final marriage to her white drummer Louie Bellson (charmingly portrayed by Stephen Dexter) lasted 38 years, until her death in 1990.
A broad selection of Bailey's most famous songs are cleverly woven into the plot, including "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey," "Legalize My Name" (from her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman), and "Hello, Dolly!" (from her turn in the all-black Broadway cast of Hello, Dolly!). Thaddeus McCants also makes memorable appearances as Nat King Cole (singing "Smile") and Cab Calloway (with a larger-than-life rendition of his call-and-response song "Minnie the Moocher"). Each of these musical interludes are crowd-pleasing in their own right, but clocking in at two hours with no intermission, the piece could cut ties with a few of its beloved montages to home in on the enrapturing story at its core.