The magnificent Same Train, now at Under St. Mark's Theater, proved that some of the best work is being staged in little underground hole-in-the-wall places. The set design was nonexistent -- just a stool and the electric piano played by Norman Small Jr. on stage right -- the lighting was simple but powerful; the book, music and lyrics brilliant; and the performances breathtaking.
The play begins with the old blues man Henry, played by the always engaging Henry Afro-Bradley, alone on the stage with a guitar. The play then expands into vignettes whose mutual subject is the vagaries of the black experience, especially the black male experience, in America. Henry fills up the corners between the vignettes with his singing and guitar strumming and his own tales of, among other things, his late wife, Clara, and his best friend, the jovial and independent-minded Butterbean. During the narratives he often watched, sometimes bemusedly, from his spotlit place in the bleachers.
The first vignette, the strange and funny Smoke and Ice, concerns two college buddies (Nicoye Banks and Thaddeus Daniels) who try to hitchhike their way to Florida in the 1980s. Somehow, after passing through woods as creepy as the Enchanted Forest traversed by Dorothy and her pals (the sound effects of cars, weird birds, and crickets were done, ingeniously, by human voices), they end up in 1936 and at the mercy of the Klan. Another vignette takes place in New Orleans and focuses on a charismatic, Stagolee type character called Crawfish, who, having gained some sophistication in Europe, can no longer tolerate the restrictions of African American life in the 1950s. Finally he escapes, like Butterbean, into his own sort of freedom. Another vignette tells the story of Pecan, a boy lost to the streets of Harlem after the murder of his father. The second act begins in a South Carolina juke joint and Henry's growling, joyous version of "Hootchie Coochie Man " and is followed by the tale of an Ethiopian girl (Laree Reese) who must tell her suitor a tragic secret. In other vignettes a playa who's not liked very much by dogs ends up in the apartment of a woman with three snarling pit pulls, and a cop is rescued from an act of desperate rage by what can only be called an act of grace.
The performances were the reasons to see this show. Afro-Bradley's Henry is as familiar and warm as an old blanket. The female performers, Reese, Tamela Aldridge, and Indigo Melendez were sexy, vulnerable, and smart all at once, and the younger male performers, Daniels, Banks and Chris Evans, acted, sang, and danced with panache. Daniels was extraordinary, whether as the furious cop (tellingly named Ajax), the tragicomic Ice, the corrupted Pecan, or the gentle boyfriend of the Ethiopian girl. The jazz poetry Bruckner wrote for the younger performers frequently soared, and contrasted with Henry's laconic folksiness. Stadm's direction and Indira Etwaroo's choreography were muscular and both made good use of the little stage. Kimo Desean's lighting design shifted from the mild gold of a southern sunrise to the spooky darkness of a southern night to the low key lighting of a bordello. The costumes, all evocative of specific times and places, were designed by Matthew Etwaroo and Deborah Alves, and the musical instruments -- small conga drums, an upturned bucket, and what seemed to be a sewer grate, played by Matthew Etwaroo -- had the punch of an orchestra. Same Train, while not shying away from the bitterness of some of its characters' lives, is a work of humor, compassion and stubborn hopefulness.
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Copyright 2004 Arlene McKanic