Lemon Andersen brings the characters of urban folklore into the story of the Attica Prison riots in this new drama at the Public Theater.
One of the hallmarks of African-American culture is the "toast," a passed-down version of storytelling where participants recite long poems about acts of heroism and fighting to the death in the face of danger. The characters in these tales are urban blacks pursuing the American dream in a world bent on denying it. They're told on street corners, college campuses, even prisons, in the way you'd imagine cowboys telling stories around the campfire.
With that in mind, there's no wonder why a spoken-word artist like Lemon Andersen would be drawn to this form. A Tony and Drama Desk Award winner for being part of Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, this category of performance is right in his wheelhouse. In ToasT, his first foray into non-solo playwriting at the Public Theater, Andersen blends the ritual and characters of toasting with the real-life historical narrative of the uprisings at Attica Prison in 1971. The result is a promising though far from perfect work, one that needs a good deal of clarification before it can solidify what it's trying to say.
At the center of ToasT is Willie Green (Keith David), nicknamed Dolomite after the famous Blaxploitation character, a father figure who has been presiding over Attica's D-Block for the past 27 years. As his fellow cellmates, led by Bruce, aka Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper), begin protesting the living conditions behind bars and word of a potential uprising starts to spread, Dolomite must decide whether or not to stay on his own in hopes of maintaining a promised parole date, or to get involved with a battle that would make the history books.
Andersen's prison population, drawn from the mythical heroes of toasts, are vividly created but could use more defining characteristics for those unfamiliar with the toasting tradition. While each performer in the entirely male company has a big moment to shine, it's hard not to wonder what makes these guys tick. To an uninitiated audience, names like Stackolee (John Earl Jelks) and Hobo Ben (Jonathan Peck), even Dolomite, and the baggage with which they come, mean nothing without explanation.
In a similar vein, ToasT meanders too often; there simply isn't enough plot in this atmospheric tale to warrant a nearly three-hour running time. Elise Thoron's slow-and-steady-wins-the-race-style direction doesn't help the cause, taking too much time to build to the frightening climax late in the second half. Fortunately, her actors are all top-notch. The design team provides a scarily realistic prison world, with the clanging white bars of Alexis Distler's set and the standard-issue prison grays of costumer Dede Ayite capturing the bleak mood perfectly. Jen Schriever's lighting and Rob Kaplowitz's sound nicely add to the claustrophobic milieu.
In the end, Toast is in desperate need of an editor who can help Andersen clarify his vision and excise what prevents the script from taking off. If that happens, this work could be a shattering game-changer in the world of downtown theater.