Review: ‘Raw Boys’

Imagine an Irish playwright writing about how all African-Americans are self-defeating losers, drunks and wife beaters. Why should the inherent racism in such sweeping indictments be any less troubling in reverse? And it's not as though there's any shortage of self-loathing Irish playwrights requiring an African-American writer to take up the cudgel for them.

Imagine an Irish playwright writing about how all African-Americans are self-defeating losers, drunks and wife beaters. Why should the inherent racism in such sweeping indictments be any less troubling in reverse? And it’s not as though there’s any shortage of self-loathing Irish playwrights requiring an African-American writer to take up the cudgel for them.

As she demonstrated in her popular “Yellowman,” Dael Orlandersmith is primarily a storyteller rather than a dramatizer, and “Raw Boys” is primarily in direct address. Once in a while, one character speaks to another, but most of the time they narrate their thoughts, feelings and actions. When they’re not narrating, they’re reading or reciting huge hunks of rubbishy poetry (“The ocean, the womb, they are the life force”) to show how creative they are.

The family drama begins when both Rose (Nancy Boykin) and William (James Gale) are 16. She’s pregnant, and since they are a “mixed couple” (Catholic and Protestant) there is nowhere in Belfast for them to live, so they move to London, destitute and pathetic. But William, who is, he tells us, musically creative (We see no evidence of this — shouldn’t a blues singer sing?), leaves his pregnant wife and runs off to San Francisco where Otis Redding compliments him. He returns to London, a bitter drunken lout, bashing his wife and brutalizing his sons.

The teenage boys deal with this hideous family in their own ways: Shane (John Keating) withdraws into books and becomes a smug, emotionless poet, while Billy (Jamie Harris) wants to escape into acting but actually escapes into cocaine. Their mother is knocking back Jamesons before lunch. All the council flats are filled with identical misery, audible — we are told but don’t hear — through the thin walls.

Fifteen years pass. In New York, the brothers, now grown men, reunite and meet cab-driving poet Neruda (Mateo Gomez) and his daughter Altagracia (January LaVoy).

The addition of these undeveloped characters seems to be an attempt at equal-opportunity racism, since the Puerto Ricans also are portrayed as abusive. Shane cruelly dumps Altagracia, despite her loving nature (expressed in self-help speeches), because her poetry is second-rate (the pot calling the kettle puerile). Billy gets his big break in a show and blows it in a move so predictable and so telegraphed beforehand that it lacks any surprise whatsoever.

Both Orlandersmith’s script and the performances lack subtlety; the former is shallow and explanatory, the latter crude and sentimental. The final wannabe “Glass Menagerie” moment (well, actually about 10 moments) is groan-inducing in its obviousness: Shane, spotlit, recites a poem about the other characters, each of whom is in turn spotlit as Shane’s memory alights on him or her.

The lighting seems otherwise meaningless, since the many mismatched lamps hanging from the flies go on and off and up and down randomly. The set seems similarly pointless: Many plain, planked tables are arranged parquet fashion to fill the Wilma’s large stage, forming an elevated platform; they are surrounded by beat-up chairs on which characters step to climb up onto the playing space. This attempt at evoking multiple kitchens for multiple families looks both pretentious and meager.

Raw Boys

Wilma Theater, Philadelphia; 302 seats; $48 top

Production

A Wilma Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Dael Orlandersmith. Directed and co-conceived by Blanka Zizka.

Creative

Sets, Klara Zieglerova; costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Russell Champa; sound, Elliot Sharp; fight choreographer, J. Alex Cordaro; production stage manager, Patreshettarlini Adams. Opened March 9, 2005. Reviewed March 12. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Billy - Jamie Harris Shane - John Keating Rose - Nancy Boykin William - James Gale Neruda - Mateo Gomez Altagracia - January LaVoy
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