Somewhere, buried deep beneath the contrived characterizations, monumental overabundance of words and clunky dramaturgy that comprise “Driving While Black in Beverly Hills,” there’s an important play desperate to get out. In fact, maybe three or four of them. As is, though, poet Frank S. Jenkins lets his heated arguments about the appropriate response of middle-class blacks to continuing racial oppression drone on without a structure, and even with a game cast giving it their all, the result becomes arduous indeed.
The play, set in 1970, begins with an inciting incident. Anthony Nash (Felton Perry) is in a truck with his son Paul (Robert Blake Marshall) and Paul’s friend Zap (Gilbert Glenn Brown) when they’re pulled over by the police for no apparent reason. A respectable, established man who believes fully that he can smooth over whatever problem exists, Anthony steps out of the car to talk this over with the police when he’s confronted with that most famous of racial epithets and with a gun pointed at his head.
It’s a brief scene, and it doesn’t go much further than that. Instead, we are taken to the main setting of this drama, the kitchen of the new Nash home in Beverly Hills. Anthony’s wife, Celia (Lillian Lehman), is preparing for a housewarming party that evening that likely will include the mayor among its guests. She’s shocked when the three men return with the news that they’ve come from jail, and at first insists they must have done something to have provoked the arrest. Even after that, she has no intention of allowing the incident to derail her party.
Jenkins focuses from here not on the racism of the event itself, but on how Anthony should respond to it. Sides quickly get drawn. Celia and Anthony want to rely on their lawyer Henderson (Duane Shepard Sr.) to find a way to sweep the whole thing under the rug, but Zap and Paul want to arrange a protest and even consider asking the Black Panthers for assistance. The players break into small groups to argue the issues.
And issues there are! There’s whether black women should wear their hair “natural,” the way the Nashes’ daughter Angela (Alex Martin-Dean), who’s also Zap’s girlfriend, has recently had hers styled. There’s whether social worker Celia should feel guilty about not worrying more about her clients when she retreats to her new home in a white neighborhood, whether the Black Panthers are troublemakers or committed to doing good deeds for the community, whether the Nashes’ financial and social advancement is due to, or at least incumbent on, their behaving as “good Negros.”
For a while, it appears Jenkins is going to avoid taking firm sides in these various debates. In one scene, it seems Paul is about to announce some middle ground, but that stays in the abstract realm, and he’s soon radicalized.
By the end of the evening, the intellectual, radical Zap has been turned into the true hero, and Anthony has accepted the fact that he remains in psychological chains, which he blames at least partially on his wife.
The biggest villain, from start to finish, is the lawyer Henderson, an Uncle Tom figure who’s married to a white woman, spends his time “integrating country clubs” and even suggests the Panthers should be lined up and shot.
The truth is, there needs to be a play that tackles what “Driving While Black in Beverly Hills” takes on. And Jenkins deserves credit for approaching the provocative issues without oversimplifying them. It’s just that he’s not in control of the dramatic medium, and he hasn’t taken the first steps to shape and edit his material.
The play is stuck in a realism that’s unnecessarily stodgy, the narrative remains completely unfocused, the dialogue tends toward the obtuse and the transitions from one conversation to the next are consistently awkward.
None of this would matter if it didn’t get in the way of the playwright’s purpose and passion, but it all clearly does, and the evening gets quite tedious even as the volume of the arguing increases.
Ultimately, one leaves confused over what Jenkins really wants to say, although that confusion may be the deepest, most appropriate expression of his point of view. The fact that the play is set 30 years ago actually takes away a good deal of its ability to shock. It seems a safe, unprovocative choice.
Actress Lynn Hamilton, Jenkins’ wife, makes her directing debut, and she coaxes out some convincing performances, particularly from Lehman and Brown. But some of the staging manages to create sightline problems even in the tiny Matrix, which has been rented out for this production.