The title of Ebony Repertory’s latest offering, “Fraternity,” doesn’t just refer to the exclusive men’s club at which Birmingham’s fat cats of color wheel and deal while the Reagan boom years wind down. It also conjures up the brotherhood ideal to which those same men once swore allegiance, back when they were desegregating lunch counters and battling for the common good. Jeff Stetson’s sprawling, sometimes awkward, always provocative work tackles the great subject of generational neglect.
Four burnt-out cases and an older mentor take stock of broken promises in the wake of their glory days. That synopsis of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer-winning “That Championship Season” also applies to Stetson’s 1987 band of plutocrats whose top dog, Alabama State Senator Charles Lincoln (Roger Robinson), is once more confidently up for reelection.
Robustly and even hammily portrayed by Robinson, Lincoln embodies every entrenched pol from Tip O’Neill to Charlie Rangel reveling in seniority and sway. He dominates the clubhouse – so sturdily and elegantly designed by Edward E. Haynes Jr. that you can understand why men would kill to be voted in – suavely pulling strings and calling in favors like the master of “Downton Abbey.”
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To his young opponent, former speechwriter Paul Stanton (a sizzling Rocky Carroll), it’s telling that Lincoln refers to black voters as “them.” Stanton calls out his old mentor as one of an army of activists who gradually fell prey to privilege’s perks, leaving the community they originally set out to liberate somehow foundering worse than before.
“How do we get our love back?” he wonders, prompting the one-time freedom fighters – now variously turned editor, real estate broker, preacher and washed-up jazzman – into moody reflections and electric, entertaining confrontations.
Stetson’s talent for pithy insight gets a fine showcase here, as in this boozy disquisition on power: “It shakes its ass at ya’ once or twice, then after you’re in bed together, you ain’t quite sure who did the seducin’….Only one thing’s for sure, it’s a marriage that will produce a lot of ugly babies.”
“Fraternity” gives each side its due, but takes on so much its seams are showing. The evening goes long and occasionally slack, and helmer Henry Miller skirts some necessary levels: Carroll’s inspiring stump speech lacks nuance to justify its inordinate stage time, and characters are too often allowed to chuckle at their own quips, diminishing the sense of danger.
The company is generally strong, though in the key role of a faith-challenged preacher Harvy Blanks is oddly absent, lacking the self-loathing of a haunted churchman eager to mock his own preaching style. A flashback sermon, when the speaker by rights should appear gut-shot, just sits there.
More troubling is Stetson’s exploiting the September 1963 murders of the “4 Little Girls,” immortalized in Spike Lee’s documentary of that name, as the inciting incident in the club members’ slow decline. Music teacher Turk (a brooding, soulful Robert Gossett) is named as one victim’s father, Blanks’ reverend as the bombed 16th St. Baptist Church’s pastor.
But is nothing owed the actual fathers and pastor? Assigning their roles to fictional characters feels wrong, like a case of historical identity theft. Surely Stetson could have given his men a different relationship to the tragedy, or constructed an altogether different race-based horror to serve his emotional and moral purposes without risking insensitivity to such a highly charged real-life event.
Despite reservations, “Fraternity” is a timely, significant achievement which commands the attention of anyone interested in seeing politics brought alive on a live stage. It rewards you considerably for that interest.