Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Great Migrations, in Two Plays

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To appreciate “Home,” Samm-Art Williams’s celebrated play from 1979, is, in part, to be drawn back in time, to the heyday of the Negro Ensemble Company, headquartered in New York City. Founded in 1967, it was a crucial hotbed for Black writing, acting, and directing talent, helping to produce names like Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L. Jackson, Esther Rolle, and Denzel Washington. Williams—who died in May, mere days before “Home” ’s revival on Broadway, at Roundabout’s Todd Haimes Theatre, under Kenny Leon’s direction—was a mainstay of the company.

Williams was a big man—six-six and around three hundred pounds, according to his friends—funny and kind. Like Cephus (Tory Kittles), the blithe, antic, tricksterish protagonist of “Home,” he was from a small town in North Carolina, called Burgaw. Cephus’s is called Cross Roads. Williams got the idea for the play on a Greyhound bus headed to the South from his new home, New York. Like many Black plays of the era, “Home” issues forth from the twin themes of migration and political alienation. Cephus is a down-home guy, a farmer deeply connected to the country soil. He’s in love with Pattie Mae (Brittany Inge), the sweetheart of his youth, who goes off to college and gets too full of book learning to feel comfortable returning to Cross Roads. Cephus’s long-held hope to marry her is dashed.

Soon, Cephus ducks the Vietnam draft and does time in prison, then reluctantly skips town and heads north, to the coldhearted streets of New York. The speech in “Home” resembles a cycle of lyric poems voiced by high-minded, plain-living folk. Inge and Stori Ayers play a host of characters, sometimes a confirming chorus and sometimes a panoply of tempters and sidekicks, giving Cephus’s journey shades of an epic allegory. The dialogue is full of effusions such as this one, from Cephus:

I love the land, the soft beautiful black sod crushing beneath my feet. A fertile pungent soil. A soil to raise strong children on. I love the rain. That feeds the earth. It’s especially nice in May. The warm sparkling drops, cover your face and the ground with its sweet blanket of pure wet. I love the land. I love touching the crops. And gently holding each plant in my hand. And feeling the love and care that Grand-Daddy, Uncle and me put into its cultivation. When you hold a plant, you can feel the heartbeat of God.

The story of a Black man hightailing it away from the South toward new opportunity in the big city is a long-running trope that places Williams’s play onto the broad continuum of the Great Migration. A migratory literary cousin of Cephus’s might sound a lament like this one, from Langston Hughes’s poem “One-Way Ticket”:

I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.

I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket—
Gone up North,
Gone out West,

But Cephus isn’t fed up with the harsh racial codes of the South; in fact, he seems not to notice them much until later in his life, when he realizes that they’ve eased. And, as it turns out, his ticket isn’t permanently “one-way”—the play culminates with a return. Cephus was never cut out for the clime and tough attitude of the North. He wants to feel the soil and see the trees. If the North has any songful impact on him at all, it’s that it makes him sound a bit like the narrator of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece, “What’s Going On,” particularly in the ecologically minded song “Mercy Mercy Me”:

Mercy, mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be, no, no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east

Cephus, too, is disillusioned with the world. He’s got a pitch-black joke about how God, instead of acting on humanity’s behalf, is off having fun in the sun:

I believed in God! I gave him my life, my soul, my breathing, my sight, my speech. All of me I gave to him. I believed in him totally until he took a vacation to the sun-soaked, cool beaches of Miami, while I needed his help and love in the hot sticky tobacco fields of North Carolina. In a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. A child.

The poetic diction and oblique delivery of the text in “Home”—much of which feels like it should be addressed to the audience even when it portrays direct encounters—make it a challenge to stage. What the play wants, I think, is a visual language as loose and blurry and funny and flexible as the speech of its characters. Instead, Leon—whose energy and dazzle I tend to commend—creates a very shallow stage plane, all bright, saturated color, more interested in horizontality than in depth, making Cephus and his tribulations look like a series of comic-book panels. Sometimes he’s surrounded by the silhouette of a small house, framing his actions with a constant reminder of their domestic and regional importance. Home and hearth have deep meaning here, but they also can be stifling.

There’s something intriguing about the idea of rendering dramatic action in static images—like the ancient pictures of the Stations of the Cross. But here the strategy robs Leon of his greatest strength—making physical gesture take on the kinetic qualities of choreographed dance—and casts Williams’s play in self-referential amber. The test of a play like “Home,” with one foot in the Africanist past (the crossroads is a powerful, bedevilling image in African folkloric and religious traditions) and the other in the grand narrative of Black Americans at mid-century, is how well it can translate into an ever-extending metaphor, applicable to contemporary phenomena and hauntings visited upon us by Cephus’s vacationing God. The Great Migration is splendid, awful, almost classical in its implications for those of us with its dust still clinging to our fingernails. And the Black theatre of the sixties and seventies, so explosively relevant to its time and still fighting for its canonical due, should be a shining example of humanistic value for all writers, everywhere, not just fodder for syllabi about a long-lost moment.

There are new stories, every day, of migration and displacement and war’s folly, here in the United States but also abroad, hemming us in from all sides. You should be able to feel or hear or see them somewhere in this story, but the frame’s too tight.

Like “Home,” the new play “What Became of Us”—written by Shayan Lotfi and directed by Jennifer Chang, at Atlantic Theatre Company’s Atlantic Stage 2—is about a harrowing journey. Unlike in “Home,” nobody in Lotfi’s play returns to make a home in the old place again. Two unnamed siblings were played, when I saw it, by Rosalind Chao and BD Wong. (These actors rotate performances with Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony Shalhoub.) Chao plays the older sister, who, as a child, accompanied their parents on a voyage from the Old Country, which is never named, presumably to keep the play applicable to an infinity of migratory stories. Before long, Wong’s character, who’s wilder and more individualistic—more prototypically American—than his big sister, comes along.

They speak to the audience, recounting their lives in swift summary, but they’re really talking to each other; the constant pronoun of the piece is “you.” There are some dramatic moments—deaths, births, arguments, discoveries—and the action can seem engineered to make an audience cry. Whoever you are, you can’t help but relate. The play has a problem that’s opposite, perhaps, from Leon’s production of “Home”: its open-doors approach to the specifics of place and time makes even its details—the occupations of the siblings, the stories of their lovers—easily swallowed without sticking to the ribs. The performances, as a result, feel vague, the actors swimming through a haze of familiar but cloudy events.

But both productions, despite their flaws, offer truths that recur like seasons of the year, seasons of life. You start out and feel yourself flowering. Trouble comes and makes a home inside your heart. Sometimes you’ve got to pick up and say goodbye. ♦

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