Monday, August 29, 2016

Night of the Living N-Word

Reviewed By A.J. Muhammad

In full disclosure the busy Kevin R. Free and I are colleagues as we both are on the producing team of The Fire This Time Festival. I missed developmental readings of his play "Night of the Living N-Word" which received its world premiere in FringeNYC in August, so I viewed his highly anticipated play with a blank slate.

In "Night of the Living N-word," the n-word may be symbolically dead and buried, but like characters in the iconic film "Night of the Living Dead" on which Free riffs and borrows the names of his lead characters, the n-word can't stay buried for long. It keeps rising and wreaking havoc on an interracial couple and their family. Although the play is billed as a "slasher-comedy," it is less a slasher than it is a dark psychological comedy that's both campy and provocative.

Ben (playwright and actor Kevin Free) is an actor on cop TV show and his activist wife Barbra (Eevin Hartsough playing a parody of a white woman) is uptight and self-righteous. Barbra and Ben plan to celebrate their teenage son Channing's (Aaron Parker Fouhey) birthday on the island plantation estate that Barbra inherited from her parents whose ancestors were slavers. The family is joined by Ben's father, preacher Clayton (Stanley Wayne Mathis) who has previously received Barbra's support in his effort to symbolically bury the n-word. Clayton also has an unusual interest in Channing's sexuality and has hired a private investigator (the versatile T. Thompson) to go undercover to find out personal information about Channing.

Although Barbra is invested in killing the n-word and rebelling against her racist parents, she has no problems calling a Black long time family servant "Aunt" Jinny (T. Thompson again) and benefits from the material wealth generated by her slave-holding ancestors. It doesn't take long for the play to set up that "Something bad happens" when the n-word is spoken, but at whose hands? It is the unemployed Ben, whose acting career has tanked and is perturbed by the closeness between Clayton and Barbra? Is it Barbra who is too eager to resort to violence to prevent her family from uttering the n-word? Or Aunt Jinny, who goes missing after a boat ride early on and re-appears late in the play with a shocking revelation or two?

Free gives us a post-Obama, but never post-racial, take on mixed race America, how society views mixed raced people and how they identify themselves. Free revives the debate about who can and can't say the n-word as well as the intergenerational divides between African Americans. Through Ben, we get a glimpse of the dehumanizing of the toll that racism takes on Black men in America. Barbra is presented as a well meaning white woman who can't help prescribing how Black people should live, but is unable to help Channing who is torn between the worlds of his parents while trying to maintain a romantic relationship with another young man.

By setting the play in the south instead of urban American, Free reminds us that that beneath the idyll and splendor of the south lies the real terror which he uses humor to depict: slavery, miscegenation by rape and illegitimacy, and land theft (enacted in flashbacks with non-traditionally cast Romeo Lacandola as Barbra's ancestors). Free uses the motif of mirrors throughout the play including a scene in which Barbra looks into the mirror and white America's fears of a Black man (Channing) in a hoodie is reflected back to her.  The play's ending is true to "Night of the Living Dead" which resonates all the more in modern day America with the senseless shootings of Blacks by law enforcement.

In keeping with the FringeNYC's low tech and DIY style, the cast provide sound effects using different instruments which adds to the tongue and cheek quality of the production. Locations are established by the cast holding up prop designer Joshua Coakley's black and white drawings like cue cards and Coakley's clever prop weapons evoke a theatricality that fits nicely within Free's story within a story device.

The cast expertly play the physical comedy and slapstick moments, and shift to drama when called for with ease. Broadway musical theater veteran Mathis is smooth, convincing and displays great comedic chops. It's Aaron Parker Fouhey who steals the scenes he's in as a sulky iPhone obsessed teen going through a sexual awakening and this could be one of the first plays where the n-word is used as an afrodesiac in a highly charged phone call between Channing and his would be boyfriend. Director Nicole Watson stages Free's play efficiently and doesn't overdo the silliness or camp aspects. She finds the balance between the thornier subjects, humor, and cinematic qualities of the play. Though at times the fast pacing caused a few of the more truly chilling moments to seem glossed over and some of the transitions could have been clearer.

"Night of the Living N-Word" deserves a full production where Free and his team have the time to tease out and expand the complex ideas Free compresses into the play. Free has such a crowded funhouse of ideas that it's easy to get lost in subplots and gags and he can find more gradations to the characters of both Ben and Barbra and their relationship with Channing.  Overall, Free has delivered and "Night of the Living N-Word" is just the play that should be seen regionally to generate much needed post-show conversations about race, white privilege and why it's so hard to kill institutional racism -- particularly in American theater of all places.

"Night of the Living N-Word!!" by Kevin R. Free.  Directed by Nicole Watson. Lighting Designer: Laurren Parish. Sound Designer: Carl Riehl. Dramaturg/Graphic Designer: Todd Brian Backus. Properties Designer: Joshua Coakley. Stage Manager: Clarrisa Ligon.  Production Manager: Clara Antonia Reyes.  2016 FringeNYC at The Player's Theater.  New York City. Ran Aug 16-Aug 26, 2016.

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