Writer-performer Daniel Beaty has attracted a following with “Emergency,” his inventive solo performance on the legacy of slavery, in which he played some 40 characters. In “Resurrection,” premiering at Arena Stage in a co-production with Hartford Stage, Beaty presents another provocative examination of African-American experience, specifically the issues that prevent contemporary black males from achieving greater success.
Beaty’s inspiration for the six-character play is the National Urban League’s 2007 annual report classifying the underperformance of black males as “the most serious economic and civil rights challenge we face today.” He has cleverly isolated several of those issues for close inspection, including addiction, diet, poverty and sexuality, within an ensemble of engaging characters representing every decade from ages 10 to 60.
Life in the ‘hood defies conventional stereotype in this tight 90-minute production. It’s a sparse but vivid tapestry of earnest souls revealing their dreams and frailties, where wit and wisdom fight for primacy over destructive influences.
The characters generally remain onstage throughout the production, sharing the spotlight to portray their evolving pursuits, which Beaty has cleverly interwoven. The poignant stories are effectively showcased with help from Oz Scott’s sensitive direction and Daniel Bernard Roumain’s moody music.
They include Mr. Rogers (Michael Genet), proprietor of the neighborhood’s only health-food store, whose array of herbs enticingly displayed in his front window is the backdrop of G.W. Mercier’s minimalist set. The modest entrepreneur is living his dream of supporting his family, but faces a losing battle to wean customers from their soul-food diets and thus stay in business.
His bright young son Eric, infectiously played by Thuliso Dingwall, turns a quiet corner of the store into a private chemistry lab, where he experiments with herbal teas for customers. His goal: “to find a cure for the aching hearts of black folks.” The store’s newest employee is the appreciative but conflicted Dre (Che Ayende), an HIV-positive ex-convict inspired by his new role model but wracked with guilt over previous mistakes.
Idealistic high school grad ‘Twon (Turron Kofi Alleyne), who hopes to attend Morehouse College, demonstrates refreshing responsibility in sexual relations. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s stern but caring preacher (Jeffrey V. Thompson) faces his own demon every waking moment — an addiction to fattening Ho-Ho’s, lethal to a diabetic. His son Isaac (Alvin Keith), a successful businessman, is afraid to reveal his homosexuality to an unaccepting father.
All are significant themes carefully selected by Beaty to resonate especially with African-American auds. But the playwright has shrewdly avoided turning this into a didactic exercise as he builds the drama to a meaningful close. As theaters like Arena and Hartford reach out to new audiences, Beaty has emerged as an important voice that can inspire as well as entertain.