Some Old Black Man (Online review)

Some Old Black Man (Online review)

Although I’ve tried to keep on the ball with all the possibilities of theatre online, sometimes there are events which slip under the radar (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor). One such is a play being streamed by the University of Michigan called Some Old Black Man. It had actually been online since the beginning of the month but had only entered my field of vision in the last 48 hours; just as well as I managed to catch it on what may or may not be its final day (see below). If it does turn out to be still available then I would thoroughly recommend it though you will still need to be quick.

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The play is a well-constructed two hander which explores inter-generational and racial strife with a pair of performances which take it to a level beyond immediate expectations. The drama unfolds in real time in the Harlem New York penthouse of Calvin Jones Ph.D. a professor of literature. He has brought his 82 year old taxi driver father Donald from a small town in Mississippi to live with him as the son does not feel the older man can cope anymore. The latter has had a stroke, is subject to falls and seems to be becoming forgetful about more recent events (though his long term memory seems as sharp as ever). The two men are separated by more than miles and, being suddenly thrown together, there is evidently going to be tension. Sure enough a disagreement over Donald placing a gaudy rug on a piece of Calvin’s anodyne and minimalist furniture turns into a dispute about what to have for breakfast; to eat or not to eat yoghurt parfait (or as Donald has it “slop”) becomes a point of principle. Both men are widowers and feel their loss keenly and, even if not overtly, they both also negatively anticipate the effect that sharing a space is going to have on their freedoms. So, it’s not long before the real skeletons start to emerge from some once tightly closed closets and the two men goad each other beyond endurance until the real reasons behind their antagonism are made clear.

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To say that this is all bound up with race is probably no surprise given the play’s title and being released in the wake of recent events in the US makes for an extremely timely examination of the issues raised. James Anthony Taylor’s script makes it clear that racism is not all one way traffic. Donald, particularly, has his own set of prejudices and is set in his ways about how things should be done. In a passage where he talks about a lynching he witnessed, his point of view is forcibly brought home and shows that working through such issues is a complex business. His more liberal son’s own biases, with more than a hint of denial about them, contribute to the potent mix and forces the pair into confrontation. However, Tyler is adept at showing the continuing bonds between the two which remain strong despite their dislike of each others’ “politics”. Thus, the ongoing tension is occasionally wisely leavened as the pair briefly bond over sport, music and the food of their younger days. In effect there are two other characters who also exert a strong influence over proceedings – the two protagonist’s wives who seem to have had more in common that their menfolk.

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Calvin is played by Wendell Pierce, now lining up to revive his lauded portrayal of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman later this year. And it’s a performance of subtlety and nuance enhanced by the camera being able to get in close. He portrays a man at odds with himself and his own past and shifts gears effortlessly between the educated liberal academic and the stroppy malcontent of his past. His pristine home has all but sanitised out his own history and allows little room  for reminders of his former family life. Charlie Robinson matches Pierce in intensity as Donald (I wasn’t sure if the name was meant to make an ironic point) as he seems unprepared to change and accommodate himself to this new enforced lifestyle. Even when he apparently makes a concession over the breakfast, he doesn’t in reality. Though I have seen parallels made to TV’s Frasier my initial point of comparison leant more towards Steptoe and Son with the two men fated to co-exist in an intense love-hate relationship. Pierce and Robinson make a formidable double act and Joe Cacaci’s brisk direction keeps things moving along; it is to the trio’s credit that this 100 minute play never drags and actually leaves you wanting more. The chic Harlem apartment is very well realised by Justin Lang though the obviously painted backdrop of Central Park seen through the window intrudes on the reality.

I’m glad I got to see this play and hope that you can too. There is some discrepancy on the website as to whether the play has a couple more days to run or actually finished yesterday. Hopefully it’s the former and you can still access this powerfully compelling piece of contemporary American theatre which contributes to the ongoing debate as the country looks to heal itself of division and strife.

Production photos by Doug Coombe

Some Old Black Man may still be available (see above). Click here to see if you can still access it

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