Joseph A. Walker knows the identity struggle of African-Americans and, by extension, other disenfranchised peoples. ‘The River Niger,” first performed in 1972, lays out the terms. It comes down to the distinction between words – talking about change – and action – doing something to effect it.
If Walker knows the struggle, then theatre arts major Barry Maxwell, who directed the production for The Studio Theatre at Cal State Dominguez Hills, knows how to enact it.
It’s a poignant, well-acted production, set up by the antics of what appears to be a humorous though slightly dysfunctional family whose foundation totters on the verge of destruction.
Walker sets the story in Harlem, in a brownstone owned by Johnny Williams (Phil Bray), housepainter by day, poet every waking moment of his life. Once a college student of promise, he dropped out to support his wife Mattie’s (Briana Marshell) extended family. Her mother, Grandma Wilhemina Brown (Crystal Blackshear), lives with them, but really she lives in a medicine (read: alcohol)-fueled dream world in which she pays ceaseless homage to her deceased husband, a god among men, killed by a redneck. Johnny’s best friend, Dr. Dudley Stanton (Alfred Pompey Jr.), is his sparring partner, his drinking buddy, and his keeper of secrets.
The household’s a-flutter with big news – their son Jeff (Scott Coleman) is returning home where he distinguished himself, or so we thought, as a navigator in the U.S. Air Force. What should be a joyous occasion is dampened by the sudden appearance of Ann Vanderguild (Teela Caldwell), a South African nurse who cared for Johnnie in more ways than one when he injured his ankle skiing in Canada. What exactly are her intentions? More ominous is the appearance of members of Jeff’s former gang, led by his childhood friend, “Big” Mo Hayes (Arnold Demarcus Moon), and his posse, the junkie Skeeter (Jeremiah White), Chips (Chrisgen Theriot), who’s called “Formaldehyde” for a disgusting reason, and Al (Carlos Ramirez), a drug dealer and something else.
It a sage story, directed with a sure hand. We’re held in thrall throughout the evening, captivated by these exquisitely enacted characters. We wonder how each will respond to situations that threaten to spiral out of control. Will Jeff stay on the straight and narrow, marry Ann, become a lawyer, or will he return to his past life? Will Johnny finish his poem before he drinks himself to death?
What makes this a landmark production is the way the cast elevates the script’s language to a starring role. The story promotes the sound and texture of words (think Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country”) to the status of gospel. It’s not just a matter of each character’s dialogue being pitch perfect to their particular personality and circumstances. It’s a poem, “The River Niger,” written by Johnny in the course of the evening, that wends its way through the production. Sinuous, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always accumulating debris, the poem ties the production together. It’s a metaphor for a life that can bend with adversity, navigate treacherous shoals, and can, no matter the terrain, continue to flow in a state of perpetual rejuvenation and grace.
The acting rings true. The various relationships – Johnny and Dudley, Johnny and Mattie, Jeff and Ann – feel genuine, all the more so in that small Studio Theatre where it feels as if we are also in that brownstone. “Big” Mo’s cohorts are a skeevy bunch, as they are meant to be. Blackshear’s Wilhemina was delightfully spirited and woozy, but that was to mask a tragedy that happened long ago. Marshell’s Mattie is the mortar of the family who bears everything with saintly patience. Caldwell’s incandescent Ann brings an ethereal grace to the evening. Having seen much sadness in her country, she resolves to do good by becoming a nurse in her adopted country. Coleman’s Jeff isn’t as self-assured as he seems, for he carries, not just his own burdens but those of his family, especially his father. In the final analysis, though, it is Bray’s Johnny who sets the tone of defiance and resignation, gutter talk and poetry, action and sacrifice. He is integral to each scene; under his helm we flow like passengers on a riverboat.
Whether it’s Harlem in the 70s or Wisconsin and the Middle East now, the prospect of change – individual or collective – is heady and exhilarating. As this production amply proves, it’s an exciting time to be alive, more so when you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
Performances are 8pm, Friday & Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until March 6. Tickets are $10-12. The Studio Theatre is located at the Cal State Dominguez Hills Theatre complex, 1000 East Victoria Street, Carson (Lot 3). For more information call (310) 243-3589 or visit http://csudh.edu/theatre/tickets.htm.