Black Lives Matter and #MeToo Step Into The Light
The inaugural play at MCC's new theater takes on the politics of the personal.
You're going to have an opinion about Loy A. Webb's The Light, whether you like it or not. The play is now breaking in the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the brand-new Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. Yes, it has that new-theater smell. In fact, it smells considerably fresher than Webb's play, which, despite all its topicality, has the doomed aroma of a prepared meal that has persisted on the chilled shelves of the supermarket even after its sell-by date.
We know what that date is, because it's printed in the program: October 5, 2018. This was the day before Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court following a contentious set of hearings, and it is night of our story. Genesis (Mandi Masden) is a Chicago school principal who was disturbed to discover a pro-Kavanaugh Facebook post from one of the white teachers. Her partner of two years, Rashad (McKinley Belcher III), thinks she should fire this naughty Republican. But Genesis (far more familiar with the teachers union than her firefighter boyfriend) insists that she can't just terminate someone for having an alternative view. "A dangerous alternative view," he retorts. Yet somehow, we instinctively know that he will betray this conviction before the night is through.
Such is the bald calculus of The Light that we can see every reversal and stake-raising plot twist coming from a mile away. Webb (who is an attorney by trade) lays out her themes with lawyerly precision, the backstories of her characters neatly lining up to support her case that men (even black men) just don't get it.
To celebrate a significant night (it's been two years since their first date), Rashad has purchased tickets to a concert in Union Park. Their favorite singer will be there, but so will an R. Kelly-like artist whom Genesis disdains for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is his misogynistic lyrics. She doesn't want to see a rapist in concert.
Rashad thinks they should go because his music presents the legitimate perspective of marginalized black men (plus, he spent a lot of money on the tickets). Genesis insists that black women have to climb over every barrier black men face, but in high heels. He calls her a hypocrite because of her love of Beyoncé, and she calls him a "dumbass hotep." This is the dramatic equivalent of nuclear fusion, attempting to capture the energy that is released when Black Lives Matter collides with #MeToo. Sure, The Light generates plenty of heat, but it also leaves us with a mountain of radioactive waste to clean up on the walk home.
I wondered how this couple of two years had never had a similar conversation before. Webb underlines this implausibility by giving her assertive female protagonist all the best lines. "It is not my job to teach you," the professional educator admonishes her boyfriend. Masden incants these lines with earth-shaking moral authority, the kind that will make you want to snap in agreement (and many in the audience oblige).
Rashad gets no such moments of glory. Standing in for all men, his character is light on specific details and complicating circumstances. Belcher does his best with this sketch of a clueless dude, but it's not surprising that his halting, stuttering delivery of the final beats of the play feels completely forced.
Logan Vaughn has directed the actors to aim for operatic emotion, and she gets it, complete with tears and trembling rage. It offers a loud distraction from the high contrivance of the script.
Kimie Nishikawa also grabs our attention with her handsome scenic design, which conveys the bourgeois splendor of Genesis's Hyde Park condo with every stemless wine glass and wooden salad bowl. Emilio Sosa's smart casual costumes additionally place our characters firmly in the upper-middle class, while Ben Stanton's mixture of window light and incandescence makes us envy the gentle glow enveloping this chic modern abode. Even if Genesis and Rashad's relationship doesn't work out, we figure they'll probably be just fine.
That's not to say that audiences don't emotionally invest in The Light. Judging by the tear-stained faces I saw as I left the theater, plenty of people did. Webb knows that the personal is political, and that by triggering the pent-up rage her audience has accumulated through lifetimes of not being heard, she can provide an emotional release. We bask in the righteousness of Genesis, but anyone looking to leave the theater with a little more doubt about their convictions will be left cold by the blinding certainty of The Light.