Carter W. Lewis’ provocative but overwritten new drama is a reminder of the pervasive influence of magic realism on the contemporary American stage. Lewis is a highly intelligent scribe with plenty worth saying. But time travel, body swapping and loose spirituality are the flavor of the decade, and “An Asian Jockey in Our Midst” is running a strangely familiar pre-millennium race.
Though some of its theatricalism appears self-conscious and overly convoluted , there’s no denying that Lewis’ ambitious play takes on some hard issues. Many of the past Rosenthal New Play Prize winners have been intellectual, politically charged affairs, and this year’s small-cast drama is no exception. “Jockey” is fundamentally about race, guilt and personal responsibility. The piece even dares to explore the racism of a professional African-American man, which is a political minefield in which few white playwrights would dare to wander.
The play is set at a racetrack that served as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. A present-day African-American couple, Nathan and Alice (Daryl Edwards and Pamela Isaacs), are eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant at the course, a new neighborhood eatery owned by a Japanese man. Two waiters come and go, one an alcoholic ex-jockey (Ray Xifo), the other a high school student (Kaipo Schwab). A teacher whose wife is pregnant, Nathan openly expresses anti-Japanese sentiments as the couple discuss their unborn child.
But then the plays’ realistic frame begins to dissolve. Nathan starts seeing a nonexistent horse that wins every race, the young server suddenly talks in Japanese, and the philosophical old boozer reveals he knows far more than we suspected.
Over the course of the play, Nathan and Alice find themselves inhabiting the bodies of a Japanese-American family struggling with their postwar identities. The young waiter slowly becomes their son, a teenage Japanese jockey who must fight his fearful family for the right to pursue a racetrack career at the very place the family was imprisoned. The old waiter becomes the jockey’s grandfather , and everyone is transported back some 40 years. The sting in the tail is revealed when it becomes clear that the present-day couple threw a bottle at the Japanese jockey when they were children. And the old ex-jockey/waiter once sabotaged his young Japanese rival. Together, they caused his death. By being forced to switch races and see the victim’s perspective, this trio of Americans comprehend the full implications of their hateful acts, and find some redemption. Thus, Lewis implies, there is now hope for the couple’s unborn child.
That’s the barest outline of a plot that had Cinci theatergoers scratching their heads for two hours. “Jockey” is probably a much better play than is reflected by Brian Kulick’s premiere production. While there were strong performances from Isaacs and Xifo, other players seemed ill-at-ease with the play’s character shifts and verbal hijinx. And a narrative of this fluidity demands clearer staging from its director if the audience is to fully appreciate the onstage events.
During the forced first act, the realistic world is not established with enough truth that its disintegration has sufficient impact (that’s also a problem with Lewis’ script). The ersatz Eastern setting designed by Mark Wendland also does not help illuminate the themes of the play; this production desperately needs visual appeal and a Japanese sensibility that has a measure of authenticity.
With a further production scheduled for Maryland’s Round House Theater later this winter, Lewis has the chance to de-emphasize form and familiar gimmicks in his potentially successful new play, and clarify and expand its provocative ideas. For this entry to win any meaningful races, its rider will have to build a more believable world before he has fun tearing the fences down. –Chris Jones