Monday, September 17, 2018

80 (2018-2019): Review: SEPARATE AND EQUAL (seen September 16, 2018)

“Slam Dunk”

Something blood-thumpingly stirring is going on at Theater B at 59E59 Theaters. I’m talking about a remarkably tense, brilliantly acted, amazingly well-staged, and socially compelling play about basketball and race called Separate and Equal, written and directed by Seth Panitch (Alcestis Ascending).

Adrian Badoo, Will Badgett, Steven Bono, Jr., Ross Birdsong. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Every season brings at least one or two plays about sports but the challenge of successfully simulating an athletic match or game on stage is daunting. Boxing can be staged effectively, of course, and a recent rash of plays has shown how, even without balls (or, sometimes, rackets), tennis matches can be excitingly realized through detailed choreography and sound effects.

Stills and video clips are sometimes used to overcome the problem, especially in plays about complex sports with multiple players, like baseball, football, and basketball. Most such plays look to the drama of off-the-field situations, in locker rooms and elsewhere, rather than to creating the visceral excitement of athletes engaged in extended person-to-person conflict. Even Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, praised for its depiction of a women’s soccer team, focused its rigorous physicality on warmup sessions, not an actual game.

But with Separate and Equal you get equal measures of thrillingly choreographed basketball and powerful human drama about race relations in Jim Crow Alabama, 1951, its inspiration coming from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. By no means a documentary, this uniquely exciting work comes to us from the heart of Dixie, the University of Alabama, which is coproducing it with the aforementioned museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.

Theater B, normally arranged end-stage style (proscenium orientation without the proscenium), has been cleared out by production designer Matthew Reynolds so that its oblong shape can be converted to a small basketball court, with the audience seated in one or two rows around its perimeter.

Overhead, at either end of the court is a video screen on which, at appropriate moments, images of Jim Crow history are projected, including, on one side, a water fountain labeled “white,” and on the other, one labeled “colored.” That fountain will play a significant role in the course of Panitch’s drama.
Company of Separate and Equal. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Most of the time, during the pickup game that occupies much of the action, each screen shows a hoop. Although no actual ball is used during the game, when a player makes a shot, a perfectly timed image of a ball enters the screen (kudos to Maya Champion’s media design) and either rebounds or swishes through the hoop, sometimes only after hitting the rim or backboard.

Six teenagers play the game, three black and three white. The former are Calvin (Adrian Badoo), Emmett (James Holloway), and Nathan (Edwin Brown III); the latter are Edgar (Ross Birdsong), Jeff Forrest (Steven Bono, Jr.), and Wesley (Dylan Guy Davis). They differ widely in manner and size, Jeff, for instance, being short and wiry, Nathan very tall and slim, and Wesley fat.

The three black boys are warned in no uncertain terms by Lt. Connor (Ted Barton, in one of several roles), a sadistic, racist cop in the mode of the similarly named Bull Connor, to vacate the court, where they’re only allowed to play for a few hours each week. Faced by the officer’s authority, and that of his slightly more congenial partner, Lt. Dixx (Jeremy Cox), the boys behave submissively. Even more painfully instructive is the groveling on their behalf of Two Snakes (Will Badgett, also covering several roles), an elderly black man, whose Uncle Tom-ism clearly comes from experience.

Soon after, three white boys arrive to use the court and, following the expected taunting by the whites, especially from the hateful Jeff, the boys gradually engage in a full court game, hoping to be able to finish before the cops come round again. During the game, the action occasionally stops, with the actors taking a knee, so to speak, as flashback scenes appear in which we learn a bit about a few characters and the influence of the local KKK.
Adrian Badoo, Ross Birdsong. Photo: Jeff Hanson.
Among them are Wesley and his lawyer father (Barton), an alcoholic whose clients include local blacks, and Calvin, whose mother, Viola (Pamela Afesi), is a maid working for Edgar’s mother, Annabelle (Barbara Wengero), prominent in racist circles. There’s also a vignette about a black Korean War vet (Badgett), lynched by crackers (Barton and Cox) for wearing a U.S. military uniform.

During the game, there’s lots of snarling, race baiting, and other nasty stuff—including bending the rules in favor of the whites on fouls—but the two groups gradually do find relatively common ground and a sprinkling of mutual respect. A violent incident, however, interrupts the emerging equilibrium and reminds us of the time and place. Melodramatic as it might appear, history supports the viability of the disturbing conclusion.

Panitch’s unusually well-honed production has each cast member playing at fever pitch. Most remarkable are the basketball sequences, choreographed in awesome detail by Lawrence M. Jackson, and as gripping as anything on the E. 4th Street court in Greenwich Village. Panitch’s script even includes references to online sources showing the styles of basketball greats like Magic Johnson, Lew Alcindor, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird, each to be used for a particular character.

The game, accompanied by an original jazz score by Tom Wolfe, is a complexly choreographed feast of dribbling, passing, possession (signaled by clapping one’s hands), blocking, leaps, twists, fakes, falls, fouls, and shots that recreates, purely in mime, the relentless pace and activity of the real thing. It’s a tribute to their well-drilled skill that the six actors, working in such close quarters, don’t crash into each other (or us).

For equal measures of visceral theatricality and racially sensitive drama, Separate and Equal is an 85-minute, NBA/NAACP-worthy show that scores a slam dunk against Jim Crow and the KKK.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 30